For Esmé-With Love and Squalor is the third work of J.D. Salinger’s that I’ve read. I studied The Catcher in the Rye at college and eventually grew to really like it, although I couldn’t get on with it at all at first, and I’ve also read (and reviewed) Franny and Zooey, which I really, really did not like at all. It’s quite funny reading my review of Franny and Zooey now because I categorically stated in it that I wouldn’t read any more of Salinger’s works about the Glass family, which is exactly what I’ve gone and done now a few years later with For Esmé.
For Esmé – With Love and Squalor is a collection of nine short stories, which also goes by the imaginative title of Nine Stories in America. All of these stories include a character or reference to a character from the Glass family in some way. It’s a large family with seven children who are fairly difficult to keep track of anyway, but especially considering that some of them are known by nicknames instead. I confess I got a bit muddled between them all, and occasionally had to look up the family on Wikipedia to see which character was being referenced and what their relationships were. Some of the family appear as more prominent characters in Franny and Zooey, and others feature more heavily in Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and its accompanying story Seymour: An Introduction, neither of which I’ve read. I believe all of those pieces were written after the Nine Stories collection though, so although they might shed some more light on the characters now, it’s possible that my confused and muddled experience of the family is slightly more authentic.
It’s quite an interesting collection, and one that I rather enjoyed reading actually. I knew it would be a bit of a gamble given my previous Salinger experiences, but I was surprised that my resulting opinions were so positive. I like to dip in and out of short story collections, but I actually only read this in a couple of sittings. At just under 150 pages and with only nine stories, I felt this was a much more manageable collection than Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, which I read just before. The majority of the stories, or at least the vibe and atmosphere of all of the stories, have stuck in my mind, which is also surprising considering that not a lot happens in some of them, by which I mean some of them don’t have a significant or stand out event.
The leading story, A Perfect Day for Bananafish, definitely differs in this respect. It centres around Seymour, the oldest of the Glass siblings, while he is on holiday with his wife. He interacts with a young child on the beach before returning to his hotel and killing himself. It’s a very sudden and unexpected ending but that makes it all the more effective, especially as the title implies that there’s a chance the story may be somewhat ridiculous or light-hearted. It’s certainly the story I’ve remembered most out of the whole collection.
Another story that’s stuck with me is the final story in the collection, Teddy. A young boy named Teddy, around ten years old or so, is on a cruise ship with his family, preparing for his swimming lesson. He is stopped on his way by a man who quizzes him on his ideas regarding spirituality and religion. Teddy has a reputation for having a philosophical and enlightened mind (especially for a ten year old), and has been examined and interviewed by various academics. He predicts a possibility of his own death later that afternoon, which is proved to be correct at the close of the story. Usually (and as demonstrated by my review of Franny and Zooey), musings on spirituality and religion are not the kinds of topics I enjoy reading about. However I appreciated this story more, mainly due to the ending. There were just enough signposts given to provide a sense of foreboding, and the way the story ended was really quite satisfying. While this story doesn’t make any reference to any of the Glass family (that I can remember), apparently Buddy Glass claims to have written the story in Seymour: An Introduction.
The title story, For Esmé -With Love and Squalor, begins with a young man in a tearoom befriending a young girl named Esmé, who promises to write to him when he goes away to war. While stationed with the army he suffers a mental breakdown, but he receives the long promised letter from Esmé, and a gift of her father’s watch, which helps him to recover. It’s quite a sweet story, and I can see why it was chosen as the title piece for the collection, although A Perfect Day for Bananafish is still my favourite.
I also really enjoyed Down at the Dinghy, which is about a young boy who is always trying to run away from home and his mother’s attempts to persuade him not to. The other stories all seemed to merge into one another for me, but they all contributed to the general feeling of the collection, and this feeling has stayed with me at least. It’s a mix of despair and characters feeling nostalgic and unsatisfied, but at the same time it has a level of hope. The odd thing is that I still felt there was this element of hope in A Perfect Day for Bananafish, despite the finality of its ending. It was shocking, but Seymour’s manner towards young Sybil beforehand meant that even though he killed himself, the story didn’t feel any darker for this happening. It’s tricky to explain and I expect other people will disagree with me, but it sort of felt like there was still a kind of day-to-day normalcy about it all, and about every story in the collection. I suppose that’s the point in a way, because a lot of the stories are focused around life after the traumas of war, where everything had to continue as normal when nothing felt normal, and then not-feeling-normal in itself came to feel normal. It’s a hard one to explain, so it’s probably best to read it for yourself and see, as I don’t think I can express it any clearer than these muddied rambles. I’d be interested to read some more of Salinger’s work now, although I’m still a little wary. Bearing in mind that I really didn’t enjoy Franny and Zooey, please feel free to recommend what I should read next, and which religion heavy stories I should avoid.
See also J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, or read previous Book Review featuring Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders.