Warning: This article contains spoilers.
I was 15 when I finished my first novel. An unpolished set of words wrapped in a Word document and a draft that summed up “cringe” as a concept, but nonetheless, a novel.
It was at that point in time when ambition first crept into my head until it solidified there, stuck for years. I wanted to publish a novel that would hit the bestselling shelves, even taking up literature as a college major in hopes of getting a leg up. I wanted to call myself a successful novelist by the time I was 17, 18, 20, giving myself excuses as time passed. The crux of the matter was—I wanted to be exceptional.
But as my adulthood came creeping in, that brand of ambitiousness had waned.
In some ways, the opening lines of the 2020 Philippe Falardeau film “My Salinger Year” hit me like a rock. The protagonist, Joanna Rakoff (played by Margaret Qualley, as inspired by the real-life Joanna Rakoff), faces the camera, addressing an invisible audience with her confessional monologue.
“I loved watching the people around us. They seemed to have interesting lives,” she says as she recounts a moment from her childhood, when her father and she sit at a hotel cafe in New York City. “I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to write novels and speak five languages and travel. I didn’t want to be ordinary. I wanted to be extraordinary.”
At the beginning of the film, we find her in that same city—all grown-up, hunkered down in her best friend and her fiance’s dingy apartment. Joanna has left the comforts of her California university, leaving her boyfriend and a grad school semester in the process. At some point, she tells him over the phone: “I’m tired of analyzing other people’s work. I wanna write.”
And don’t all writers end up in close quarters as tortured artists, typing away future masterpieces? She verbalizes the thought, but her actions prove otherwise when she finds herself writing less. Instead, Joanna takes a job in a renowned literary agency, an assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), an agent with equally renowned clients—one of them being J.D. Salinger, “The Catcher in the Rye,” infamously hermit-like J.D. Salinger.
In the coming of age in “My Salinger Year,” the trajectory of adulthood isn’t a path that only goes forward. Growing up meant looking back, now packed with the sliver of wisdom entering adulthood has afforded you.
Her earlier intentions and aspirations are gradually pushed to the sidelines, but haunt her in almost every scene. Publishing staff with desires of writer-dom are shunned, but kept an open secret. Margaret states that she doesn’t hire writers because they make “the worst assistants,” while stories of the lucky ones are whispered in the offices: employees who made it to the big leagues, a.k.a. the people brave enough to go against protocol—simply because it was all they wanted.
Writing frequents Joanna’s thoughts like a lingering threat. Soon, her new artsy boyfriend wraps up his novel as quickly as they got together, which turns out to be a manuscript as questionable as he is. But there is Joanna, swept by duties that come with the rigors of adulthood. She writes rejection letters for fans who write to Salinger, a reclusive author whose fan mail has never been graced by his presence, just as he wishes.
Despite that, Salinger—“Jerry” to the agency—becomes the one to goad her back to dreamland, even if they’ve never really met.
“You’re a writer, Joanna, aren’t you?” He asks over the phone when Margaret was indisposed. “Not an agent, not a secretary.”
Joanna is reluctant to label herself one, but she forces herself a “yes” out of her system. The solution is easy for Salinger.
“So, write!” he says. “Protect that sanctuary, okay? Don’t get stuck answering the phone. You’re a poet.”
It’s a point that seems to be the closest thing to a eureka moment for Joanna. In the next scene, she meets writers from The New Yorker at a party, who offer to look over her material as her boyfriend converses at another table, poking fun at her favorite section of the magazine. Later on, she sits down with the words of Salinger—something she hadn’t done as a non-reader of his works—and finds comfort and answers in his characters, like the fans whose letters she shreds.
On the cusp of her success in the literary agency, she quits her job. Margaret has a resigned expression when she says to Joanna, “You have other aspirations.”
She steps out and into New York City, the most assured she has ever been after responding “I do.” It’s the Joanna from her monologue’s stories, the Joanna who witnessed people walking by and said “I want to be like them!” This is a Joanna that was pulled back into the realm of dreamers that we so often leave in our own coming-of-age stories.
In the coming of age in “My Salinger Year,” the trajectory of adulthood isn’t a path that only goes forward. Growing up meant looking back, now packed with the sliver of wisdom entering adulthood has afforded you. Joanna knows things better now, and at that moment, she’s brave enough to return to her past self.
On the route to my own coming of age, ambition dusted away in a corner, neglected in favor of reality. I’ve given myself excuses, watch the years go by, and somewhere in a folder, a draft with an unpolished set of words sits alone. Someday, I’ll return to it, as my own way of saying “I do.”
“My Salinger Year” was part of QCinema 2021’s online lineup. Watch the trailer below.
Stills from “My Salinger Year”