Joanna Rakoff knows a lot of jerks. Or at least she did in 1996, the year she spent working as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent in New York. The “wannabe writer working as assistant with proximity to literary legends who goes on to write a book about it” has gotten to be a familiar trope (Janet Groth’s The Receptionist comes immediately to mind) but Rakoff exceeds the expectations of her genre and gives us a well-woven tale about love, disappointment, reading, and finding her feet as a writer. Salinger is only a secondary character in Rakoff’s book as the reader’s attention is dominated by the amazing array of assholes that Rakoff manages to entangle herself with in the space of a year.
Leigh the drug snatcher:
Early in the book, Rakoff is sharing an apartment with her boyfriend Don and his moneyed-but-starving-because-of-a-weird-family-situation friend Leigh. Rakoff is prescribed Vicodin, Leigh salivates over it, offers to buy it, and then just steals it. Battling an addiction and stealing prescription pain meds does not make you an asshole; it makes you addict. But when confronted, Leigh insists that Rakoff gave her the Vicodin implying that Rakoff is facilitating her addiction. Asshole.
The Polish landlady:
A little bit of a slumlord, a little bit racist (the whole “Jews make the best tenants thing?”), and very nearly responsible for the fiery death of our protagonist when she used cheap plumbing piping to connect a gas heater.
Don the boyfriend:
On one hand, I really appreciate Don because he added a lot of colour to the book and I’m sure Rakoff credits him with teaching her many, many life lessons. But there’s no denying that he’s a huge asshole. His struggling Brooklyn writer “I’m working on a novel” thing makes me want to punch him in the face but his shining moment comes when he informs his live-in girlfriend that she is not allowed to come with him to his best friend’s wedding because he wants to hang out with his “bros.”
When Rakoff tells her parents that she isn’t going back to grad school and is staying in New York to work, they’re unimpressed. An appropriate parental reaction to this declaration would be informing your child that now that they’re out of school, they’re responsible for their own finances. Let me be clear: I don’t believe that parents have to support their children past the age of eighteen and that includes tuition and living expenses. Cool if they can/want to, but they don’t have to. I paid my own way through school and am glad that I did. But Joanna’s father then tells her that she is on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Her credit card bills while she was a student (that her parents had implied they were paying at the time) AND the students loans they took out in her name by forging her signature.
Forget the legality (although clearly that student loan thing is illegal); that’s a pretty big breach of trust. If you aren’t able/willing to pay your kid’s way through school, you should mention that at some point to allow them to financially prepare. My parents told me when I was about fourteen so I had lots of money saved by the time my first tuition bill came around. With an asshole like that for a father, it’s no wonder Rakoff ended up with an asshole like Don for a boyfriend.
The Blume-hating Boss:
If you’re a regular Red Brick Reads visitor you’ll understand why this particular cut feels so deep. The agent for whom Rakoff is an assistant, know only as The Boss, is primarily responsible for old accounts including Salinger’s but inherits the accounts of some active writers from another agent. One of those writers is Judy Blume. She comes in to the office with a new manuscript. We learn that the literary agency keeps the rest of her books tucked away on a shelf where no one can see, though they proudly display writers with more literary cache. We learn that The Boss hasn’t read Blume’s earlier work. Rakoff reads Blume’s manuscript and loves it. The Boss reads Blume’s manuscript for the book that would ultimately becomes Summer Sisters and tells Blume she isn’t sure it will sell.
A woman who can’t understand the magic and beauty of Caitlin and Vix’s female friendship story? Ultimate asshole.