- Urbino, Italy - Franny and Zooey is not a very popular book, despite being published 50 years ago by a pretty famous writer. Everyone knows the author, J.D. Salinger, because of his novel, The Catcher in the Rye – and everyone has an opinion about it, they either love it or hate it. I loved it. It has a dear place in my heart, and I always wondered why we never hear much about Salinger’s other works of fiction. He was an extremely gifted writer, as even Hemingway once said, but he was also very shy, raw, and jealous of his works. He simply disappeared years ago until news came that he had died last year (2010).
I can’t say I loved this book – maybe I expected more. I probably expected to love it as much as I loved The Catcher in the Rye. I expected to read the last sentence and think, “What the hell, people? Why did you ignore this one?!”
It didn’t happen. Maybe Salinger had simply put too much into his first novel. Too much into Holden Caulfield. He was no storyteller – not the kind of writer who can come up with a new, original plot at any moment. He didn’t work with his fantasy, he just sought – I think – ways through characters to explain himself. That’s what I thought after reading his bio – and please, do that when you read a book, there’s so much inside a writer’s life!
Franny and Zooey are little Holden Caulfields – young, smart and disgusted. Looking for something. They’re the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, raised in a family where they were all supposed to be little geniuses, and raised, also, by their two oldest brothers, Seymour and Buddy. They introduced them to a zen way of life, and then they just both left. Seymour was suicidal, Buddy went to work far from home and rarely called.
The novel is split in two short stories, just as the title says: the first is on Franny’s perspective, the second on Zooey’s. In the first part Franny – a beautiful 20-year-old College student visiting her boyfriend Lane – has a nervous breakdown and faints. She seems to hate everyone and despises everything. She has something on her mind. In the second part, we meet her brother Zooey and their mom, Bessie, who’s deeply concerned about Franny.
The novel is filled with intellectual arguments, mostly about religion and academic discussion. In fact, in the transition from Franny to Zooey, we have a brief encounter with their brother Buddy, who is actually the narrator, discussing whether this is a mystical story or a love story. And that’s actually the question we are left with once we finish reading this book. There’s a lot of religious talk, mostly from Zooey’s side. Everything starts with the mention of a book that Franny’s reading, The Way of a Pilgrim, a book given to her by her brothers, Seymour and Buddy, who provided her with a spiritual education, suggesting that “there’s some sort of being with God”*. In fact, this book she is reading talks of using prayer as a mantra, and that’s exactly what the final part of the book is all about – praying to connect with Jesus.
I do agree with Buddy, though. He says this is a “compound or multiple love story, pure and complicated,” and that’s what you should look for in this book. There is a lot of material, sure, if you’re looking for religious theories that somehow peek at Buddhism, Zen philosophy, and a little Christianity. It definitely made people talk and shake their heads back in 1961 when the book came out, but there is a deep love underneath. Fraternal love, from Seymour and Buddy, who wanted to instruct and prepare their brother and sister, yet only managed to turn them into “freaks, that's all. Those two bastards got us nice and early and made us into freaks with freakish standards, that's all. We're the tattooed lady, and we're never going to have a minute's peace, the rest of our lives, until everybody else is tattooed, too." Motherly love, full of concern, and patience, and submission. Understanding, from Zooey to Franny, because they’re on the same boat, and if there’s something one managed to figure out, he should let the other know.
That’s the subtle thing connecting Salinger from a story to the other – that’s what captured me with Holden, and what someway captured me here -, the fact that in such intellectually strong characters, so focused on themselves, so rough with everything else, you find a little weakness, revealing a wound, or a tremendous love. That’s why Salinger was so able to understand our generation: because we’re so busy with our own things, so different from what we show people, and so deeply troubled. We question ourselves on life and future, and we don’t really know the answers. And underneath all this, underneath what always looks to be Salinger’s theme in his books, there’s a story of love. What really matters is the love story.
You’re not going to like this book as much as The Catcher in the Rye, if you ever read it. I didn’t. But, in some way, it’s like going back there, just without the journey and the funny encounters. This is a very confined story, but the people, they’re still the same.
Rating: 3.5/5 Sour Grapes
*This quotation was taken from the video from a Yale lecture that you can watch here, if you’re interested.