Book Review: 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” So begins Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the National Book award winning memoir that chronicles the devastating aftermath of her husband’s sudden death of a heart-attack just months before their 40th anniversary. Compounding and confusing her grieving process is her daughter Quintana’s mysterious (and ultimately fatal) illness.

Author Joan Didion is a well-known journalist, essayist and novelist. Her husband John Dunne was celebrated in his own right and the two collaborated on several screenplays during the course of their highly successful careers. An obsessive note-taker, Didion recorded the minutiae surrounding her husband’s fatal cardiac event and its aftermath, from what book he had been reading before dinner to the contents of his wallet when she had to claim it at the hospital after his death. In the year that followed, she continually returned to these observations, rewinding and replaying her memories over and over in her mind as if by doing so she could somehow change the outcome.

This is the ‘magical thinking’ to which the title refers, a form of muddled denial that manifests in the derangement of grief. Didion refuses to get rid of her husband’s shoes because he will need them when he returns. She keeps his cell phone charged. While in Los Angeles where her daughter is hospitalized, she carefully plots her driving routes so as to avoid the Brentwood neighborhood where she and her husband once lived, afraid of being pulled into the vortex of fragmented memories that always lead to thoughts of her husband and the happy, privileged life they shared. She re-reads his work and her own for portents of his death, wondering if she should have seen it coming, if she could have averted it.

“In times of trouble I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature,” Didion writes. “Information was control.” But she finds that information – be it the work C.S. Lewis, the poems of W.H Auden, advice on funeral etiquette from Emily Post or medical case studies published by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine – offers no control over her grief and cannot protect her from being sideswiped by loss while, say, walking across Lexington Avenue.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” Didion writes. This is a raw, unflinching story told from the midst of such a place, not a memoir written upon safely reaching the other side. As such it offers no comforting bromides or helpful reassurances. In Didion’s memoir there is no closure, no resolution, very little in the way of insight.

If you’re looking for an uplifting book that can help give you a strategy for dealing with grief, you’d be better served elsewhere. The Year of Magical Thinking is best read as an honest portrayal of how the death of someone close can utterly unravel the fabric of everyday life, and as one woman’s story of the long and sometimes painful journey towards acceptance.

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