The Year of Magical Thinking (reread)

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.

YearofMagicalThinkingThese are the lines that open Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. They are also the first lines that she wrote after her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack as they were sitting down to dinner. In that instant, which she calls “the ordinary instant,” Didion’s life changed, and this book chronicles that first year of learning to live with that change.

When Dunne died, he and Didion had just returned from visiting their daughter, Quintana, at the hospital where she was in a coma after having been diagnosed with a flu that turned into a whole-body infection. As Didion mourns for her husband, she must also take care of her daughter, who spends the year going in and out of hospitals in New York and California.

Given the subject matter, one might expect something sentimental, full of emotional breakdowns and tears over gravestones, but Didion, the consummate “cool customer,” takes a detached, journalistic approach to her own grief. The situation is highly emotionally charged, but Didion’s narration is not. But neither is it organized and completely coherent. When Didion’s mind wanders, so does the narrative. When a glimpse of a familiar piece of highway on a television commercial sends her mind into the dangerous vortex of memory, the narration follows.

Didion is fully aware that her thoughts aren’t rational; the “magical thinking” of the title refers to her belief, hidden even from herself, that somehow she could change what had happened:

On reflection I see the autopsy itself as the first example of this kind of thinking. Whatever else had been in my mind when I so determinedly authorized an autopsy, there was also a level of derangement on which I reasoned that an autopsy could show what had wrong was something simple. It could have been no more than a transitory blockage or arrhythmia. It could have required only a minor adjustment—a change in medication, say, or the resetting of a pacemaker. In this case, the reasoning went, they might still be able to fix it.

One of the great things about this book is how it expresses so articulately the kinds of thoughts people might have when grieving. It is, of course, only one woman’s story, but it is her true story. Didion doesn’t divide her grief into tidy stages or have a clear moment of catharsis. It’s a messy process, and when the book ends, she hasn’t healed—the initial pain is just more distant.

Although death, grief, and illness are the focus of the book, Didion’s narrative also includes excursuses into the writing life that she and Dunne shared. There are excerpts from Dunne’s writings, particularly those that were inspired by real life. Didion makes frequent reference to the books of poetry and medical texts that populate her home and that she turns to in order to better understand her situation. As a writer, it would seem natural for her to seek solace in books, and I could relate to that.

This was my second time reading The Year of Magical Thinking. I enjoyed it the first time, but I only read it again because my book club is discussing it this month. It does hold up to repeated readings, and it’s quite an easy read, even though the subject matter itself is difficult.

Didion has also adpated The Year of Magical Thinking into a one-woman stage play that I was fortunate enough to see earlier this year. The stage version covers much of the same ground as the book; it includes many of the same incidents and often draws directly from the text. However, Didion has added additional material related to Quintana’s death, which occurred shortly before the original book was published. If you get an opportunity to see it, it’s well worth it.

See additional reviews at Sophisticated Dorkiness, The Egalitarian Bookworm (Chick?), and dovegreyreader scribbles.

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15 Responses to The Year of Magical Thinking (reread)

  1. Jenny says:

    I’ve wondered whether I’d like this book. My mom didn’t enjoy it; she wanted to see some awareness of something beyond Didion’s self in the book, something like redemption. (I told her to re-read A Grief Observed and have done with it.) It sounds as if it would be good if this was not your expectation, though.

  2. adevotedreader says:

    I confess I’ve avoided reading this because of the subject matter. I have it in the TBR pile though, and by the sounds of it I shoould try it.

  3. rebeccareid says:

    I think it sounds memorable, even if it is sad. I, for some odd reason, think I’d like a book reflecting on grieving. I liked A Grief Observed. I guess I like the emotions.

  4. litlove says:

    I haven’t read this myself, but I gave it to a friend who was suffering terribly after the death of her mother. She really liked it and found it a comforting and uplifting book, and one that really nailed the grieving process. I will read it one day, when I need it.

  5. Frances says:

    A friend had the same reaction to the book as Jenny’s mother – that it reflected so much of Didion’s self that she lost sight of any general perception of grief. But that is precisely what I enjoyed about the book. The notion that grief needs to be filtered through your own identity, your own books, etc. None of will experience loss in the same ways.

  6. Teresa says:

    Jenny: Yes, expectations are crucial. This book is very, very tightly focused on Didion’s own thoughts over that year. She writes a bit on things she reads about grief, but she doesn’t do much more to universalize or draw deeper meaning. There are better books for that.

    adevotedreader: I found it worthwhile reading, even if just for the superb writing, but it’s not something to read when you’re looking for something cheerful.

    rebeccareid: This book reminded me of A Grief Observed, mostly because it felt so immediate–written closely after the loved one’s death and revealing the messiness of grieving.

    litlove: I can see how this would really help someone who’s in mourning. Didion says things, particularly about the “deranged” thinking that I hadn’t heard said so clearly, but that ring true.

    Frances: Yes, I also found the tight focus on Didion’s own experience to be an asset. I never got the sense that she was trying to say there was some right, or typical way of mourning, just that this was her way.

  7. savidgereads says:

    I have always looks at this and had a ponder as to ‘would this be a me sort of book? It sounds like it could be and I may eventually now have to add it to the TBR, great review.

  8. I’m glad you liked this book a second time. I read it for the first time recently and loved it. It was very emotional, without being depressing which is a tough thing to do. I’m looking forward to reading it again sometime in the future. Thanks for linking to my review!

  9. Nymeth says:

    It sounds like the messiness, and even the detachment, might make it even more affecting. I hate books that try to make grief sound predictable and neat, when it is anything but.

  10. Teresa says:

    savidgereads: Even if it’s not your typical read, it’s nice and short, so it won’t take too much time. If you do read it, I hope you like it.

    Kim: I think I liked it a little more the second time. Seeing the stage play in between made her voice even more real.

    Nymeth: Oh, I agree. People react to tragedies in so many different ways that no single person’s story is going to pull in all the possibilities.

  11. cbjames says:

    I’ve loved Didion’s other works. I should give this one a try. It sounds very good. Did your book club like it?

  12. Teresa says:

    cb: This is the only Didion I’ve read, and I’d like to read more. Any suggestions? My book club met tonight and generally had mixed reactions. The one person who really didn’t like it is a therapist herself and felt she’d heard most of what this book had to say many times before. Most others at least found it interesting, although no one found it to be as emotionally absorbing as they expected. That bothered some people while others (myself included) liked her more detached voice.

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