Way back when I was an intern at Bloomsbury Publishing – shortly after graduating – I read My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff. A memoir about literary New York in the 1990s it recounts the time Rakoff spent living in New York when – after graduating from university – she worked as an assistant to the literary agent for JD Salinger. A wonderfully charming tale that is both poignant and nostalgic, I later went on to read her debut novel – A Fortunate Age – tells the tale of a group of Oberlin graduates who move to New York to chase dreams, relationships and a life less ordinary and perfectly captures the transition to adulthood.
My Salinger Year has recently been adapted for the big screen – starring both Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley – and Joanna was kind enough to share with me her Desert Island Books. From Zadie Smith’s magnificent third novel to her all-time favourite book, here are the eight tomes Joanna would take with her to the sandy shores of a desert island.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
I love all of Wharton’s novels but this one has special resonance for me because I, like Newland Archer, found myself in a perfectly okay but bloodless marriage, longing for a person I’d long known, for whom I felt a passionate connection. Over the long years of my marriage–in which I felt trapped, certain I would incur the wrath of society at large and, of course, my conservative parents, if I left it–I read and re-read The Age of Innocence countless times, my heart racing with recognition.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith + Howards End by E.M. Forster
I’m cheating a little here, but bear with me: Zadie Smith’s magnificent third novel, On Beauty–which takes place in a fictional version of my city, Cambridge, Massachusetts–is, famously, a modern gloss on Forster’s elegiac comedy of manners. Both novels are about the freedoms and constraints and delusions of the educated upper middle classes, a constant subject of mine, and about the ways in which our ideals can both liberate and destroy us. And both are wonderful on their own, but read best as a pair.
Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen
Like everyone else on the planet, I love all of Jane Austen’s novels. In my twenties, I favored Persuasion; in my thirties, Emma; and in my forties, Sense and Sensibility, which so gorgeously gets at the ways in which women define themselves, try to carve out lives and identities for themselves, within the structures and confines of their times.
Passing by Nella Larsen
This gorgeous, heartbreaking novel, published in 1929, was a revelation for me when I first read it, at 22, in that Larsen–like Jean Rhys, whom I also first read around that time–portrays, in the most unvarnished way, the perils for women who don’t play by society’s rules. Set in Harlem and Chicago, the novel follows a pair of friends–Clare and Irene, both black women–who make rather different choices about how to navigate a fundamentally racist world. Clare moves to Europe and passes as white, a choice that leads to material comfort, but causes her much loneliness and pain. Irene, through whom the story is told, watches as her friend’s life spirals out of control, simultaneously envious and appalled. There is, of course, much more to it, and the glory of this book lies, so much, in Larsen’s precise and moving prose.
Le Divorce by Diane Johnson
Possibly my all-time favorite novel. I’ve read it a dozen times or so. Diane Johnson, an American who lives in Paris, primarily writes novels about cross-cultural connections, relationships, and misunderstandings; and this novel is, I think, her best. Narrated with deadpan aplomb, Le Divorce follows Izzy–the aimless child in a family of ambitious go-getters–as she travels from California to Paris, to help her sister, Roxeanne, in the final stages of her second pregnancy. Only to find that Roxeane’s seemingly perfect life is a shambles: Her French husband has run off, to the horror of his very proper family. As Izzy tends to the distraught Roxeane, she gets drawn into both the world of American expats and that of her brother-in-law’s wealthy family. I could go on and on but you just have to read it!
Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie
I first read Foreign Affairs as a grad student at University College, London, in a class on contemporary literature about Anglo-American relations, and it was a revelation to me. An American novel from the 1980s–it won the Pulitzer in 1985–that has the wit and verve and structural precision of Wharton and Austen. And that captured the particular loneliness I felt as an American in London. The novel concerns two Cornell professors on sabbatical in London, an older, single woman who feels herself to be English at heart and more at home in London than anywhere in the U.S., and a young, newly married man, having troubles with his artist wife. Many reversals and revelations occur. This novel is a true joy.
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
There is little I love more than a huge, sprawling, Victorian-style novel, and Min Jin Lee’s brilliant, absorbing, magnificently ambitious debut is exactly that. Set against the backdrop of the vast economic shifts of the 1990s, the novel largely chronicles the growing pains of Casey Han, a first generation American, whose parents run a Queens dry cleaning shop. Brilliant, if rebellious, Casey embodies the American dream–all that her parents wanted for their children–winning a scholarship to Princeton, entry into the rarified worlds of Manhattan fashion and finance, but the ways in which she straddles multiple worlds–and many sets of values–cause her endless confusion and pain. This reminded me, so much, of another favorite: The Forsyte Saga.
Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin
During the year chronicled in My Salinger Year, I discovered Laurie Colwin, whose charming, hilarious novels and stories chronicle a world much like the one in which I grew up: New York, Jewish (but not religious), in which food holds supreme importance, and feelings are kept decidedly in check. There are many more famous American Jewish writers–Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow–but none whose work spoke directly to my own experience. This is my favorite of her novels and, I believe, a truly perfect novel. It centers on a wealthy, seemingly happy, successful wife and mother, whose happiness–and that of her family–ultimately hinges on her…long-running affair with a downtown painter. Did I mention that it’s also highly feminist and deeply subversive?
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