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.
These 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.