Friday, March 05, 2010

At Home in the World: A Memoir, by Joyce Maynard

At Home in the World: A Memoir (Picador: 1999) is Joyce Maynard’s recollection of the first four decades of her life. Known for her columns in the New York Times and her other writings, she recounts how her father courted and married her mother, their early years together, the births of their children. Her father, an English professor two decades older than her mother, was a frustrated artist and an alcoholic. Her mother was a brilliant woman who would have been a college professor and perhaps even a writer had she not lived in a time when married women with children found it difficult if not impossible to have careers. Encouraged to be creative and intellectual, Maynard and her older sister grow up in an environment that might have been idyllic had it not been for the frustrations of their parents and the tensions of their marriage. Maynard is preoccupied with how in much of her writing she was never able to write about the truth beneath the superficial veneer of her family’s life—she could not bring herself, for instance, to write of her father’s alcoholism or of problems in her own marriage. In this story, the daughters to some extent inherit the faults of their parents even as they succeed in escaping them.

The center of this memoir is Maynard’s account of how she wrote an article for the New York Times that caught the attention of J. D. Salinger. He wrote her, she wrote back, and following several months of correspondence she moved in with him and spent much of a year in his house. She was eighteen. He was fifty-three. Their relationship was strange and increasingly strained. Salinger practiced homeopathic medicine and diets, he counseled Maynard to share his bitter rejection of the world. He encouraged her writing and initially praised her work, though he warned her to be honest in her writing above all else. Although they discussed having children, they never had sex (her inability rather than his). Maynard discussed her uncomfortable relationship with Salinger’s daughter (about her age) and son. (Salinger’s daughter has written her own account of life with her father).

The end of the relationship caused a major crisis for Maynard. The rest of the book narrated her recovery, her marriage, three children, and divorce and a final meeting with a bitter and angry Salinger while she is writing the memoir.

Maynard writes well. But does she write well enough to justify this memoir? Does she exploit Salinger by violating his obsessive privacy and writing about their relationship? Perhaps. But she comes to believe that he exploited her, and there is no doubt that he did. She is shocked to learn that he had a correspondence with another young woman about the time he was writing her, and that in fact he had a number of such relationships with younger women. He is living with a younger woman the last time she sees him, when he is seventy-seven.

I found Maynard’s parents the most interesting part of the book. They were eccentric to a fault, yet they loved their daughters. Their family was dysfunctional, and Maynard grows up to raise her own dysfunctional family. What family isn’t dysfunctional?

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