At Home in the World is the mesmerizing memoir by Joyce Maynard that chronicles her devastating, all-consuming relationship with renowned novelist, J. D. Salinger.
On the surface, it seems inexplicable: why would an eighteen-year-old girl 'fall in love' with a fifty-three year-old man? But now, having read the book, I feel I understand.
Salinger’s first letter seems innocent—he was a fan of her New York Times essay, "An Eighteen-year old Looks Back on Life" and "cautions that a glimpse of fame can distract a writer."
The letter‘s sentiments made her feel as if he saw her spirit, gave her a feeling of value, validated her talent and herself. This is intoxicating. In a sense, too, Salinger tries to save her from—to quote Lady Gaga—"the fame monster" (of which he knows plenty).
But Maynard also had much in common with Salinger—both writers, both from New England, both felt like outsiders. Moreover, "this stranger . . . seems to know me," she writes. Brilliant, thoughtful, charming Salinger was an artist and a devotee of alternative medicine and vegetarianism. He had a sophistication and knowledge of the world he wished to bestow on her.
As for Maynard, she had a precociousness and a maturity beyond her years, along with her sense of alienation. She is also needy (who among us does not need or want love?). She is anorexic and bulimic. Yet she wins prizes and accolades, writes magazine articles; gains kudos from New York intellectuals.
All that said, Salinger—the grown-up—should not have allowed this ‘friendship’ to go further.
One wonders what Maynard's parents (her mother, especially) were thinking. She wonders, too, in the scene before her first weekend trip to Salinger's home: "I have tried to imagine what was going on in my parents' minds. . . . Nobody suggests this is a bad idea or questions what might be going on in the mind of a fifty-three year old man who invites an eighteen-year-old to come and spend the weekend."
Perhaps they were naive or, as Maynard says, filled with pride. This was in 1971. As a society, we now more quickly recognize child abuse or the potential for it.
As a reader, I am fascinated by the poetic symmetry in Maynard’s life, which can only be regarded as fated. For instance, her description of her father might also describe Salinger in the early stages: "courtly and dapper and charming."
In its essence, theirs is a father-daughter relationship: Salinger gives young Joyce advice about her writing career, about life. He makes suggestions. Then, later, they are commandments—he controls what she eats (very little), wears, writes, whom she befriends. Everything is subject to his approval.
When he abruptly ends the relationship, Maynard desperately tries to convince him otherwise. (In truth, I read of the break-up with relief.)
Add to the mix, a flirtation of sorts between Salinger and Maynard's mother—which may have contributed to the "dissolution" of the relationship—and you have a sad, distressing situation for all concerned.
At fifty, Fredelle Maynard—an author and “a Harvard Phd”—was at “an age more appropriate for receiving the attention of a fifty-three-year old." Years earlier, when she was nineteen, Mrs. Maynard had wed a man who was twenty years her senior. Slim, tall, and blond, Max Maynard was "courtly and dapper and charming." That marriage was now also headed for “dissolution.”
The writing is in the present tense, which heightens the book’s intimacy. This tense—the historical present—also gives a sense of immediacy, of overwhelming understatement. Once you begin to read At Home in the World, however, you will not stop. The book is so engrossing. It is a cautionary tale young girls/women ought to read: the lessons related in this book, we may all benefit from.
In the afterword, Maynard states that she auctioned off J.D. Salinger's many letters to her. But, I wonder, what happened to her letters to him? Does she know? Or can we guess that Salinger burned or destroyed them?
At Home in the World forever links Joyce Maynard's name with J. D. Salinger’s. We can perceive it as tarnishing his literary legacy; or that the book provides a more complete portrait of him.
"If I tell what I do, nobody else can expose me,” Maynard writes. “If I live my life in a way I'm not ashamed of, why shouldn't I be able to talk about it? I am surely not the only woman who made herself throw up every day, or flew into a rage at her children, or felt abandoned by love.”
--Yolanda A. Reid
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