Modern Australian

in My Salinger Year, hope and optimism win out

  • Written by Anne Maxwell, Professor, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

Review: My Salinger Year, directed by Philippe Falardeau

In 2014, Joanna Rakoff published a memoir, My Salinger Year, recounting the events of the year she spent working as a “Girl Friday” in Harold Ober Associates – one of New York’s oldest and finest literary agencies.

Rakoff’s sole responsibility was to read the constant stream of fan mail sent to its most famous client, JD Salinger, and to write polite “brush off” letters to their authors.

Rakoff enjoyed at least one encounter with Salinger. The Joanna of Philippe Falardeau’s film adaptation only gets to hear Salinger’s voice courtesy of the phone calls. Nonetheless, these gradually work their magic on Joanna and she comes to appreciate the adoration he inspires in his fans.

As Rakoff remarked in a 2014 interview: “I became a true believer. It was a bit like being inculcated into a cult!”

At first, she scoffed at the god-like awe in which Salinger’s fans and the agency held him, but after reading his books she thought: “I get it, he really is a genius”.

Romantic notions of the literary world

Born in 1919, Salinger is best known for his only novel, The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. He followed this novel with several short stories and novellas, including the collection Nine Stories (1953) and Franny and Zooey (1961).

The last work published in his lifetime was Hapworth 16, 1924, published in The New Yorker in 1965. While The Catcher in the Rye remained an erstwhile best seller, Salinger became notoriously reclusive until his death in 2010 at the age of 91.

Read more: Six years on: the enduring influence of J. D. Salinger

Both novel and movie are set in midtown Manhattan in 1996. Computers were only just beginning to appear in American offices. From the art deco design of the agency’s offices (the real Harold Ober Associates was in Madison Avenue) to the small, narrow bookshops with their shelves crammed full of hardbacks, the movie excels at the atmosphere of shabby chic glamour that permeated New York’s literary scene at the time.

The young Joanna, wide-eyed and earnest, is perfectly played by Margaret Qualley (daughter of Hollywood actress Andie MacDowell). Sigourney Weaver as Joanna’s boss and Salinger’s agent, Margaret, is brilliant at playing the neurotic, ageing career woman, at once intimidating and vulnerable.

Director Philippe Falardeau plays up the initial tension between Joanna and her boss: Margaret’s dismissal of new-fangled technology — especially computers — means the agency is caught in a time warp, and Joanna’s letters must be typed on an old typewriter.

Margaret also tries to disabuse her young assistant of any romantic dreams she might have about her job. Being a literary agent, she says it is all about sales and commerce. But Joanna has other ideas. She defies Margaret’s orders and writes personalised replies to Salinger’s fans.

Film still. Margaret smokes, Joanna types. Margaret’s cynicism is met with wide-eyed optimism by her assistant, Joanna. Palace Films

The fans, she believes, deserve the same thoughtful and passionate response that Salinger’s novels elicit from his readers, a passion which is apparent from their letters. Falardeau presents these letters through a series of imagined conversations between the fans and Joanna.

Youthful dreams

By focusing on the theme of Salinger on the one hand, and the way the year in New York helped Rakoff decide the direction of her life and career on the other, Farlardeau’s movie drastically condenses Rakoff’s narrative while still remaining true to the text.

It is partly because of Salinger’s constant encouragement in their phone calls and her own self belief that Joanna doesn’t lose her dream of becoming a writer. Margaret might be a cynic, but optimism wins out.

Production still: Joanna reads Nine Stories In learning to love Salinger, Joanna forges her own path as a writer. Palace Films

While the film lacks the sparkling wit of Rakoff’s book, it makes up for in its faithful recreation of 1990s New York and the sensitive way it portrays a young woman’s youthful dreams of becoming a writer — and the first exploratory steps she took in order to get there.

My Salinger Year will warm the hearts of J.D. Salinger fans, and will keep the dream alive for many aspiring creative writers.

My Salinger Year is in cinemas now.

Correction: this piece has been updated to note Margaret Qualley’s mother is Andie MacDowell, not Demi Moore.

Authors: Anne Maxwell, Professor, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

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