This is a beautiful, beautiful book. I came across this book through a review on The Guardian. The book is Memoirs of Joanna Rakoff, taking the reader into her life in “The Agency” - a literary agency which represented J D Salinger, standing on the cusp of a change as the Agency moves from the age of Typewriters and Dictaphones to Computer. The perspective of the story is very new. It doesn’t rely on the typecast characters where the young woman is either a world-changing activist or a hopeless romantic or a soul-less woman. She is as real as a woman (or a man, for that matter) can be. She has many things to do, to build a career, to write poetry, to fall in love. Not one of the things, not many of the things, all of the things which engage the mind of young people. She joins the Agency expecting to slowly slip into a literary career. She writes poems in the morning and like an ill-paid apprentice deliberates about the lunch to be had. Her sense of description and observation is profound. The descriptions are not clichéd, which could be probably because Joanna as she tells Salinger over phone, She writes poetry “in the morning” much to the pleasure of Jerry. She describes her boss in such an enchanting manner when she writes that “My boss, as far as I knew, had no children, and she like a certain breed of adult- appeared to have never been a child herself, but rather to have materialized on earth fully formed, in a taupe-hued pantsuit, cigarette in her hand “ when she tries to rationalize her inability to appreciate the work of Judy Blume. Who would not get charmed by that and who would not identify the hurt of being reminded of the money parents spent on raising us, something which always felt we had a divine right to.
She is given Form letters to respond to people who try to reach out to Salinger, the brilliant, legendary and still, asocial writer. But then, there are tremendous demand greatness impose on legends. She explains the mild directions which her colleagues take, in terms of being friendly and not. But always very careful of not to fall in the trap of typecasting her characters, she always leave them at the point where they come across as very real people, thriving through their grays. As per very explicit instructions, she writes form letters, bears with Don, her current boyfriend, holding out on her own, without becoming a gender fanatic. She drives clear of the clichés, balancing her work, her bills and her mental calculation before each meal she has. On account of a mishap in her boss’s life, she ends up being in the thick of discussion of Salinger with a lesser-known publisher- The “Hapworth affair” as they call it in the agency. Much to the dismay of her boss, the matter proceed towards almost certain publication of a Novella of Salinger, after a gap of close to a decade, till the time when the news becomes public on account of an, hopefully, innocent leak by the publisher which saddens Jerry who considers him as a friend. Joanna sells a story, and is finally accepted as one of the Agency’s own. The romanticism and the desire to change the world is slowly subdued in splashes of realism as she gets angry responses to the deviation of the form-letter, wherein she tried to be kind to people writing mails to Salinger.
Joanna reminds one of the poetic style of Scott Fitzgerald, and one cannot but disbelieve her when she laments not having read Dickens, or Dostoevsky, Or Proust. The poetry lingers sweetly through the prose with sentences like, “My voice had fallen to almost a whisper and the wind picked up, whipping my hair and skirt around.” She contemplates her own place in Don’s life and in the world in general with such disarming honesty when she write about Don, “He surrounded himself with fools – the broken, the failed or failing, the sad and confused – so that he might be their king. Which, obviously, made him nothing but king of fools. But what did that make me?” In utter humility, she doesn’t even believe herself to be extra-ordinary or uniquely placed when she writes that “the city was full of boys and girls like me, clamoring at the gates of literature.” Anyone who has read this book wouldn’t agree, however. She is not one of those boys and girls. She is one with the eye for details, a heart that could feel those details as they form contours of her own life and a pen to write. She ends the story with a sad note with “a family in mourning, the world in mourning” as her father prepares to die.
If you love a sweet story which doesn’t pretend to be world changing, which does not clamor for attention; if you love poetry which doesn’t intrude the prose, if you love being young and being naïve and truthful, this is a book you will love. While those who are intrigued by writing and publishing will like it, anyone who has ever done the first job will not be able to escape the charm of innocent, honest story. One doesn’t come across such stories always. It is a fresh, morning breeze, as feeble and as gentle and as refreshing.