Summary (Amazon): Since his debut in 1951 as The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with “cynical adolescent.” Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. It begins,
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”
His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies (the two of course are not mutually exclusive) capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation.
My Review (Spoilers!):
Executive Summary: surprisingly current
Somehow I escaped high school without having to read this book. It’s been on my list for a while of books that I probably should have read, and luckily one of the girls in my book club brought it to our book swap meeting. It was a bit hard to get in to for me, but once I did, I actually really liked it.
The book is about Holden Caulfield, a teenage boy from a wealthy family, who is being kicked out of his prep school, Pencey, for bad grades. Holden is not a very likable character. He’s obviously from a rich family, and basically goes from prep school to prep school getting kicked out of each one. He has a very hipster mentality that everyone who conforms is a phony, and he’s significantly better than any of them. This is why I found it difficult to get into the book. I just really hate people who refuse to take advantage of the opportunities that they are presented with.
However, as the book progresses, the reader learns that Holden’s brother Allie, died from leukemia a few years earlier. His other brother, D.B., moved to Hollywood to be a film writer. It is obvious in the book that both of these factors have affected Holden tremendously. He also has a lot of similar experiences to other teenagers–who to date, who to be friends with, whether to have sex, what to become when you grow up, how to have a good relationship with your family. And let’s be honest, most real adults have those same issues too. We just have (hopefully) developed proper experience to make better decisions. Being a teenager is all about figuring out things. And Holden is no different. He has few friends at school (although it’s unclear whether he just thinks that he doesn’t). He has difficulty in certain classes, specifically ones he isn’t interested in. He has difficulty with women. He has strong feelings for a girl Jane, who his roommate goes out with. Holden doesn’t believe that his roommate gave her the proper respect that she deserved, so they get into a fist fight. But then later in the book, he goes out with this girl Sally, who he doesn’t really like, and he also solicits a prostitute but they don’t end up having sex. I kind of got the idea that he was just a confused hormonal teenager who was caught between being respectful and succumbing to his hormones.
He does have what seems to be a really great relationship with his youngest sibling, Phoebe. Before the reader even meets her, Holden has touted her as being really incredible, especially for a kid. And I thought Phoebe was really a good character. I guess maybe she shared my same thoughts about Holden. She was sympathetic toward him, but she also realized that he was unhappy (she asked Holden to name one thing he liked and he couldn’t come up with anything) and in trouble. Toward the end of the book, Holden meets her to tell her his plan to travel out west to live as a deaf-mute, but when she arrives with a suitcase so that she can come along, he is upset and tells her no. They argue and she gets very upset with him (which it seemed as this was an unusual occurrence) but eventually they somewhat make amends. Holden returns home with her, ends up in therapy, and is to start a new school the following year.
Verdict: 3.5 stars
I really felt like most of the book was a statement about mental health, especially in someone at such an important age. Holden is obviously very depressed due to his one brother’s death and due to the other brother’s absence (and possibly his success due to being phony), and I’m glad at the end, he did finally get help (It was written in the 50s and some people today still think that therapy is for wimps). It’s also a story about growing up and finding yourself. The title of the book comes from a song (that I am totally unfamiliar with) that Holden mishears as “If a body catch a body coming through the rye”. He develops this misheard lyric into an imagination where he is watching over children who are playing in a rye field on a cliff. He is responsible for catching any children who fall. Holden gets upset when he sees vulgar graffiti at Phoebe’s school which shows he has a very strong association with protecting the children–perhaps he thinks he had to grow up too fast. The book was written in 1951, but the book doesn’t seem dated at all (with the exception of typewriters!) as I think most people have experienced at least some of the same things at one point or another in their life. I’m glad I finally read it.