Any reading, word-loving, literary-minded person will identify with Joanna Rakoff and her desire to immerse herself in the literary world of books, authors and publishing. And where to fulfill this dream? New York City, of course.
In the 1990s, Rakoff leaves graduate school and takes a job as a poorly paid assistant at a famous literary agency in the Big Apple. This is an agency that was stuck in a time warp; computers were eschewed and typewriters and dictaphones were in use. It was the ’90s but this place was trying to live in the days of the Thin Man movies and steamship travel. The spirit of J.D. Salinger, the agency’s most famous author, haunted the place and Rakoff.
She’s touched by the large amount of fan mail that constantly arrives for Salinger and is never read or answered. Unaccustomed to using a typewriter, she soldiers on in an attempt to respond to the loyal Salinger fans. Her only interaction with the author of The Catcher in the Rye is by telephone, and that’s a challenge as he’s become quite hard of hearing. There are no revelations about the elusive author, beyond what Rakoff gathers from tender fan letters. Still, there’s something Salingeresque about her book because it’s a vivid story of innocence lost (shades of Holden Caulfield).
When she’s crafting heartfelt replies to Salinger’s letters, it’s easy to understand her experience: the great ambitions and failures, the loves and losses, and Holden Caulfield’s own favorite cause — a young person’s never-ending battle against the phonies.
Rakoff chronicles her coming of age during her first adult job, including a relationship with an overbearing aspiring novelist and the realities of trying to make it in New York with its harsh financial repercussions. She makes sad grown-up compromises, spending less time writing and more time working to support her unemployed boyfriend. One night, she comes home to find her roommate sobbing, having eaten a pound of spaghetti, and realizes why the roommate is scared: ”No one — no mother, sister, roommate, professor, boyfriend, anyone — was there to monitor her habits and behaviors…. She woke up, went to work, came home, alone.” That’s the loneliness of life after college, perfectly explained.
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