At Home in the World: A Memoir

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a memoir

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Joyce Maynard's memoir At Home in the World is an attempt to make peace with herself. At times, however, it's hard not to see it as an act of war--on her parents and, most notably, on J.D. Salinger. Maynard's account of her year-long relationship with the reclusive writer is the centerpiece of the book and the publicity pivot on which it turns. And how not? She first encountered Salinger when he wrote her a fan letter following her world-weary but not necessarily wordly wise New York Times Magazine cover piece, "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life." He was then 53 and, as Maynard paraphrases, wanted her "to know that I could be a real writer, if I would just look out for myself, as no other person is likely to." By the time she was 19, she was living with the increasingly controlling Salinger and doing her best to adhere to his regimens, from homeopathy at any price to a mostly macrobiotic diet heavy on frozen peas. (Lamb burgers, formed into patties and then frozen--before being cooked at a dysentery-friendly 150 degrees--also figure heavily.)

What's worse, he does his best to turn the hugely driven young woman into a mistrusting, publicity-shy prig, not to mention helping her perfect her already anorexic bent. Maynard is such a skilled writer that it's hard not to take her side as the relationship falters. In fact, even when it's going well, it's not easy to sympathize with a man whose idea of an endearment is, "I couldn't have made up a character of a girl I'd love better than you." But Maynard is as hard on her younger self as she is on the great man. Though she had published intimate essays since her early teens, and long been feted for her "honesty," it has taken the overachiever many years to realize that she had carefully left out her most personal burdens--her father's alcoholism, her mother's nighttime "snuggling" and overwhelming intrusions, the distance between her and her older sister.

Still, At Home in the World is more than a clearing-house for past parental and amorous wrongs. It's a cautionary tale about using language and the pretense of truth to obscure key realities. One of the many curiosities in this discomfiting book? Salinger dreamt that he and Maynard had a child together: "I saw her face clearly. Her name was Bint." The World War II veteran then looks up the word. "What do you know," he says. "It's archaic British, for little girl." Maynard never, even now, has questioned his definition. In fact, it's slang, used especially in World War II, for prostitute. When Salinger forced the 19-year-old to clear her things out of his New Hampshire house, she was still unaware of the word's force. "On the window of Jerry's bedroom, where the glass is dusty, I write, with my finger, the name of the child we had talked about: BINT." --Kerry Fried

From the Publisher:

"Riveting and disturbing." --Katha Pollitt, The New York Times Book Review

"Dazzling." --Jules Siegel, The San Francisco Chronicle

"Even Salinger loyalists may feel compelled to reexamine their idol." --Sara Nelson, Glamour

"Brilliant! At Home in the World reads like a thriller. Maynard has written a poignant, deep memoir. Wonderful, compelling, honest, and right on target." --Jeffrey M. Masson, author of Dogs Never Lie About Love and When Elephants Weep

"At Home in the World reads like a companion piece to Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, a study of the painful and crosswired contradictions that still plague ambitious girls." --Chris Kraus, The Nation

"Ms. Maynard writes in this volume with a sort of double vision, recreating the girl and young woman she was while at the same time looking at that younger self through the retrospective lens of middle age." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Absorbing, funny and emotionally blistering. Clear, eloquent and unpretentious, At Home in the World demands reading for the astounding pleasure to be found in a writer who has the courage to show herself inside out." --Jules Siegel, The San Francisco Chronicle

"A wry, painful, engaging book." --Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes

"Maynard's testimony is priceless." --Mary Cantwell, Vogue

"Maynard has an interesting and disturbing story to tell, and she tells it simply but vividly." --Marion Winik, Newsday

"Powerful." --Larissa MacFarquhar, The New York Times Magazine

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