In 2014, Joanna Rakoff published her bestselling, multiple award-winning memoir My Salinger Year, an account of her time working at the literary agency which represented reclusive writer J. D. Salinger. A would-be writer herself, Rakoff revelled in the inspiring atmosphere as she dealt with endless fan letters to Salinger. Director/writer Philippe Falardeau has adapted her memoir into a light but charming account of a young woman dealing with her first real job, finding her place in the world, and finally gaining the courage to trust her own voice and write. His adapted script perfectly captures the hope, confusion, and constant change of this period in Rakoff’s life, as well as providing a beautiful tribute to writers, by juxtaposing the well established Salinger with the aspiring, untried young writer. In the process, he also offers some wonderful background: an engaging view of life in New York City and the entertaining and funny environment of a literary agency and its eccentric staff.
Margaret Qualley plays Rakoff beautifully, making her believable and likeable. An intelligent but slightly naive young woman with literary ambitions but not, so far, the confidence to pursue them. She allows Rakoff’s efforts to feel her way, her wide-eyed fascination with New York and its literary subculture, and her intense admiration of writers, appealing and identifiable, and, with the help of a well-written screenplay, quietly discloses both Rakoff’s sharp mind and her uncertainty.
Her inner self is revealed partly through her reactions to features of New York, with favourite books and even more through her interactions with other characters. Rakoff’s mentor and nemesis is her boss, Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a tyrant, fanatical technophobe, and literary snob, yet someone Rakoff admires and tries to learn from, and ultimately comes to appreciate. The rest of the office staff are equally colourful and provide something of a support group as Rakoff learns the ropes. She also finds her feet through her floundering relationship with a substandard boyfriend (Douglas Booth) and her encounters with some of the writers her agency represents.
The most significant character, Salinger himself, barely appears, but his presence is always felt. In his portrait on the office wall, his occasional phone calls, and as part of the work that the agency sometimes has to do for him, particularly in terms of hiding him from the press and public. Rakoff is assigned to read the letters addressed to Salinger, mostly from admiring readers, many of them pouring out their hearts to the author they believe can understand them, most of the time based solely on their strong feelings for Holden Caulfield and Catcher In The Rye. Some of their notes are ridiculous, but many are heartbreaking, confessing everything from loneliness to suicidal thoughts to the author, who will never actually see their letter – all correspondence is discarded, at the reclusive Salinger’s request. In a clever bit of cinema, the letter writers who have such an impact on Rakoff are shown speaking to her directly, by having them narrate the contents of their letters directly to the camera from their various home locations. She is moved by their intense reaction to a book she has never read, and the letters are the catalyst for a great many emotional and professional changes on her part, including foolish mistakes.
The film is by no means action-packed, and it does not try to be. It is something of a late coming of age story, in which Rakoff’s life, her hopes, and her inner growth are the story. All the same, the film is far from dull; it draws the viewer into Rakoff’s mind and her personal adventure, bringing them clearly into the foreground and making them clear by means of well used visual devices.
The city of New York plays a role of its own, representing in Rakoff’s mind an amalgam of literature, excitement, and the opening up of possibilities – represented in key scenes by specific buildings or fixtures in the city, beautifully shot so that they loom more prominent than their role as a backdrop. The supporting cast are wonderful, beginning with an outstanding performance by Sigourney Weaver but including all of Rakoff’s colleagues at the agency, her small group of friends, her imaginary letter-writing acquaintances, and the barely-there character of Salinger himself (veteran character actor Tim Post), who influences and encourages Rakoff in unexpected ways.
My Salinger Year is a film that can be enjoyed as much for the sea of affectionate literary allusions in which it swims, as for its humour, its quirky cast of characters, or its success as a heartfelt character study.