A Modern Classic on the Surreality of Mourning

Book review: The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

Those words were the first that Joan Didion wrote after her husband’s death.

In case you’ve never heard of it, The Year of Magical Thinking is journalistic legend Didion’s highly praised, often stream of consciousness-style literary memoir about the life-changing year of grief and shock after her husband of forty years, novelist John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly from a massive heart attack. At the time of his death, their daughter Quintana was hospitalized, comatose from a shifting combination of flu, pneumonia, and septic shock.

I finally read it last month, and with a renewed popular cultural interest in Didion and her work (that seems to happen every few years, doesn’t it?) thanks to the Netflix documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold”, released today, it seemed a good time to review it.

I remember when this book was published in 2005 because I worked in a bookstore then. Even hearing the synopsis was enough to turn me off. I was too young and completely uninterested in topics relating to marriage and even more so to death, bereavement, grieving, and scary, terminal illnesses. I’m still mostly resistant to the same things; I don’t understand some readers’ devotion to so-called “grief memoirs” or tear-jerking novels, but my interests have matured. I’m married now, and just over a year ago I lost my grandmother, who was like a mother to me. And from one moment to the next I understood something about loss and grief that I’d never understood before, having never experienced it on this different level.

On a podcast I love, a host said that she sees a great difference between people who have lost a parent and those who haven’t. I think she said something about people she grows close to – that there’s just a different understanding, a maturity, in those who’ve experienced that loss. I felt that change in myself too, and shortly after passing the one year mark of losing my grandmother, I felt ready to read something even tangentially related to bereavement, in the hope of drawing some wisdom or comfort from it.

Didion observes here the difference between the loss of a parent and of a spouse, those being the significant griefs she’d known and felt writing this. The way she describes it was indeed exactly what I’d felt of grief, and I shudder to think of what it must be like to lose a partner, although her raw, bared descriptions here were vivid enough to imagine.

I knew the basic story, that Didion lost her husband and daughter in a relatively short span, and this book was the eventual product of that time. But I was off by a little – it’s more about coming to terms with the death of her husband and the void his absence left in her life. Her daughter’s serious illnesses begin and are covered, but at the book’s conclusion, she’s living, it seems another massive tragedy in the wake of the first one has been averted.

Quintana’s death is covered in Blue Nights, Didion’s 2011 memoir. I didn’t even know that book existed, but this felt unfinished without reading that one too (I actually liked Blue Nights more, review coming later.)

Content-wise, it’s as much a book of remembered moments and scenes of their lives as it is strictly about the year following Dunne’s death, or maybe it’s that those memories were what comprised the year. I’m not sure. Any narrative progression is interspersed with her musings as reality coalesces with the surreal, trancelike moments that accompany grief. Some of these were painfully universal:

What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?

And instances of sharp, clear, detailed recollections that suddenly take on new significance or meaning, or their true meaning becomes clear in hindsight, with time. For example, once when their daughter asked John about “what she seemed to consider the inequable distribution of bad news” that she felt their family had experienced:

“It all evens out in the end,” John said, an answer that bewildered me (what did it mean, couldn’t he do better than that?) but one that seemed to satisfy her.

Later, Quintana’s best friend asks Joan if she remembers that response, and says John was right.

“I recall being shocked. It had never occurred to me that John meant that bad news will come to each of us. Either Susan or Quintana had surely misunderstood. I explained to Susan that John had meant something entirely different: he had meant that people who get bad news will eventually get their share of good news.
“That’s not what I meant at all,” John said.
“I knew what he meant,” Susan said.
Had I understood nothing?

I liked these kind of considerations and scenes. I think more than anything, the book serves as a yearlong diary of grief and coming to terms with a new reality, life beyond the life you’ve known for so long. It’s a glimpse, almost diary-like, into how Didion lived and coped with this year of grief and the fantasies, the magical thinking of the title, that anyone mourning finds themselves awash in. For Didion, it was an inability to discard John’s shoes, because she could only think that he’d need them again.

People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as “dwelling on it.” We understand the aversion most of us have to “dwelling on it.” Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,” Philippe Aries wrote…”But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.” We remind ourselves repeatedly that our own loss is nothing compared to the loss experienced (or, the even worse thought, not experienced) by he or she who died; this attempt at corrective thinking serves to plunge us deeper into the self-regarding deep.

Didion’s writing means that her moments of literary brilliance outshine discomfort at her natural iciness, elitism, or the repetition of her favorite themes and stylistic choices. At least for me it’s so. But it’s worth noting that those things do grow repetitive, and I never could shake the elitist feeling running throughout this one. Elitism is addressed in Blue Nights, so if you can overlook it here, there are some truly beautiful, meaningful moments, especially for those seeking to understand something, anything, about the funny, illogical processes of grief.

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion
published 2005 by Random House

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository, a great site offering free worldwide shipping. 
It means I get a small commission (at no extra expense to you) if you buy via these links.
I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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