“It is unfathomable to me, at eighteen, that some people actually grow up feeling reasonably content with themselves. It will be years before I understand some people go to bed every night with a sense of well-being that has nothing to do with winning prizes or publishing their stories.”
At Home in the World is a memoir by writer and author Joyce Maynard, first published in 1998. My interest in reading it was peaked several years ago, after I had read and enjoyed two of Maynard’s novels of fiction, Labor Day and After Her. And despite knowing Maynard as an author in the context of having read two of her books, I actually had no idea of her rich history as a writer, author, daughter, mother, and a woman trying to finally feel at home in the world.
The memoir mainly focuses on Maynard’s eleven-month relationship with infamously reclusive author J.D. Salinger between 1972 and 1973, which began after New York Magazine published an essay she wrote about growing up as a young person in the socially and politically turbulent 1960s. But At Home in the World is more than that: it’s a story of a young girl who, for the majority of her life, struggled to find a place where she felt at home. She details her upbringing with her mother, a writer, and her father, a university professor who was an unstable alcoholic. Essentially, Maynard describes how she seemed to follow every rule that she was supposed to and still ended up feeling dissatisfied once she grew up; something that is still relevant and resonates today. She describes how she met Salinger at such a formative time in her existence and had still yet to process her own writing career that began to bloom at such a young age. She wrote her first memoir following the success of her published essay, Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties, despite still being too young to truly know or find her place in the world. Maynard also struggled with anxiety and an eating disorder as she tried to maintain different expectations and standards of perfection, all while becoming infatuated with a famous author who attempts to mold her into the woman and writer he wants to see.
Reading how Maynard describes the era in which she grew up, especially since she was an adult when she wrote this memoir and finds strength in her perceptions merely from the distance of time, was fascinating. It was interesting to see how past generations, especially ones who came of age in an era of shifting social norms, struggled just as much with feelings of anxiety as current generations do. Growing up is hard and being alive is hard, and Maynard always reminds us of that. For me, At Home in the World was less about her relationship and/or affair with J.D. Salinger and more a coming-of-age tale from a now-grown woman who refuses to lie to herself anymore. She admits that she was too young to have been given such a platform as a writer and journalist for multiple magazines and newspapers, including Seventeen and The New York Times. She admits she was infatuated with Salinger merely because he was such a highly respected author and, from the time she was a child, she craved approval anywhere she could get it. She admits that reading many of the pieces she published as a teenager and young adult make her uncomfortable now, because no eighteen-year-old should ever sound that sure of themselves. But she uses her affair with Salinger as a focal point for her own becoming, and how despite the fact that he was the one who grew bored with her and abandoned her, she was able to finally find her footing as a person in the world once he was out of her life. Years later, as an adult, Maynard visits him in person and demands an answer to one question: what was her purpose in his life? He doesn’t really give her one, but what he does say is enough to confirm what she and the reader already know: maybe the whole world is full of liars and fakes and phonies, but it’s better to be in it, than down here with you.
I find At Home in the World did drag in places where Maynard chose to focus a little too much about her immediate family by building up characters who don’t really play hugely pivotal roles in the overall story she is telling, but I feel as though she had to establish who she is by telling us about her upbringing and her family as they were. But the memoir itself was crafted very strongly and will surely resonate if you have either read Maynard’s books of fiction before, or you’ve ever struggled to feel at home in the world: I’m willing to bet every single human being will satisfy at least one of those. Maynard’s storytelling is very raw, honest, and real; she writes of her own failings and shortcomings with such vulnerability and realism that you can’t help but keep reading until the last page. 4/5 stars.