Books: Ah, Dull Revenge

Joyce Maynard lets it rip about her shattering affair with J.D. Salinger. But do we really care?

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The pair first met in 1972, when Maynard, then a Yale freshman, wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine titled "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life." Something in the piece--the waif-like cover photo of Maynard?--caught Salinger's eye, and the two began a correspondence that led to Maynard's moving to Cornish, N.H., to live with "Jerry," a divorced father of two teenagers. He had given up the lures of fame in favor of obsessive privacy and a cranky life devoted to writing and homeopathy.

The Salinger chapters take up about a third of this memoir. The rest Maynard devotes to descriptions of her super-achieving mother and alcoholic father, and her post-Salinger drift, in which she had three children, one abortion and one divorce (check for updates). She does not manage to do the one essential thing: connect the dots between her inability to get over Salinger and her failed marriage. But in the final pages, she does achieve a sort of catharsis--even the reader is cheered when Maynard floats serenely above Salinger's hideous behavior. She seeks out Salinger one last time, to ask him a typically Maynardian question: "What was my purpose in your life?"

In this memoir-happy era, though, the real question is where to draw the line between valid personal writing and mercenary gossip. Just because Salinger is a brute, should we feel satisfied that Maynard has shredded his privacy? Just because we are dying to know, does that mean we have the right to know? Maynard may have written this story because she needed to. But she published it because someone was willing to pay her to do so. And that is not reason enough.

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