Friday, May 25, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Vintage Books
Copyright 2006
227 pages

Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed.

They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered onto the hood of the car.

Before dinner John sat by the fire in the living room and read to me out loud. The book from which he read was a novel of my own, A Book of Common Prayer, which he happened to have in the living room because he was rereading it to see how something worked technically . . .

The Sequence is complicated (this was in fact the sequence John had meant to reread to see how it worked technically), broken by other action and requiring the reader to pick up the undertext in what [two characters] say to each other. "Goddamn," John said to me when he closed the book. "Don't ever tell me again you can't write. That's my birthday present to you."

I remember tears coming to my eyes.
I feel them now.
In retrospect this had been my omen, my message, the early snowfall, the birthday present no one else could give me.
He had twenty-five nights left to live.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion's account of the first year after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. At the time of his death, their daughter Quintana was in the Intensive Care Unit of a New York hospital, suffering from sepsis - a whole-body infection which had begun as flu.

The Year of Magical Thinking was a remarkably difficult and quick read. By "difficult", I mean that the book is exhausting in a heartrending, raw, emotional way. I would never attempt to read the book immediately after a loss, or possibly even during those first few years when any reminder of your loved one leaves you with a sensation much like that of having a bruise poked. I remember that C. S. Lewis's book about his wife, Joy Gresham, was also eloquently painful; in fact, I abandoned the book because it served no purpose during a time of grief to read about someone else's agony.

Joan Didion's thoughts about her husband and their marriage are, however, beautiful and deeply touching. They had an amazing marriage. I love the quote on the cover: "Stunning candor and piercing details . . . An indelible portrait of loss and grief." That's a perfect capsule description of the book and one which I don't believe I can top.

I'm not going to rate this one because I feel torn about it and as if it would be somehow wrong to criticize or score it in any way. While I could relate to the emotions, the numbness and the anger that are part and parcel of the grieving experience (and I don't separate "grieving" and "mourning" the way she does), it wasn't what I'd call a "pleasant" or "enjoyable" read and there's a part of me that feels like reading about someone else's grief truly serves no purpose if there's not some great revelation of light at the end of the tunnel. The book is about pain heaped upon pain. There's a hand-written note in blue ink, at the end of my copy. It says "Joan and John's daughter, Quintana, died August 2005 of acute pancreatitis." If anything, the book left me with the overwhelming sense that life is unfair, in part because of that hand-scrawled addition. I left it with the feeling that I desperately needed air and light.

I should add that the first quote at the top of this entry really jumped out at me because the week before my father died I hit a butterfly with my car on one day and a bird the next. In spite of the prevalence of wildlife in our area, it was and is very unusual for me to kill two creatures in one week and I certainly did reflect on the two deaths as an omen of my father's demise. There were a lot of similar parallels; bits about psychological studies on grief rang true to my own experience. But, in many ways I felt like reading about Joan Didion's anguish merely forced me to revisit my own loss and that's something I neither want or need to do. If I flip through the book again, it will be to mine a few references to titles that piqued my interest.

Recommended with a forewarning that it's a very emotional read.

Please pardon my absence, for the past few days. This will likely be another "light posting" week as the husband is home (oh, the messes!) and so is the eldest son, but I hope to sneak in some blog-hopping, tomorrow. The guys will be working on flooring our hallway, which has been bare concrete since a leaking dehumidifier forced us to rip out the carpeting during the winter and that could keep me away from the computer a bit. Then again, I might just find myself hiding in here - posting to get away from the inevitable trail of tools and flooring.

Youngest son and I drove to Clinton, Mississippi, to watch Spiderman 3, yesterday. Apart from the sobfest toward the end (goodness, Spidey sure was emotional), I actually enjoyed it. I went in knowing it was a love-it-or-hate-it movie and not anticipating that I'd find it overly entertaining. To be honest, it was the only movie with daytime showings that was remotely tempting; and, we just wanted to get out of the house. It suited the purpose. And, while I understood some of the criticism, my overwhelming thought was . . . well, after all, it's a movie made from a comic book. Neither of us expected it to be any more than what it really is - a comic book brought to life. We had fun.

I'm only about 80 pages into The Pearl Diver by Sujata Massey and I found it a little difficult to put down, last night. Since I'm anxious to read something amusing - or, at least, light - Stevi Mittman's Whose Number is Up, Anyway? will be thrown into the mix, tonight. It's an advanced reader; I've read earlier entries in the series and absolutely loved them, so I think this is the right moment for an upper by Stevi.

Hope the Americans have a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day weekend and wishes for a lovely weekend to the everyone else!


  1. I really loved The Year of Magical Thinking too. It's an odd one to say that you loved because it is so emotionally raw. I definitely thought it was worth reading!

  2. Exactly how I feel. I'm glad I read it, but I wouldn't reread the book because I'd know what I was in for and that level of emotion is very difficult to read.

  3. I too liked this book and have loaned and recommended it to a number of friends. I haven't lost anyone as close as a spouse or parent but I could really feel the experience as I read this account - it just felt so true to me.

  4. I'm so torn about if I want to read this or not. I'm pretty emotional and I don't know if I can stand to read about this poor woman's grief, no matter how well written. I think I'd have to be in just the right frame of mind.

  5. Juliann,

    I found it a little too immediate; it was really very much as if I was reliving my own grief. It's definitely an account that is realistic to the experience of tragic loss.


    I read the book because it's a group read . . . somewhere. Our Coffee Rings, maybe? I'm wondering, now, if I'd have read it otherwise.

    I'd say the book is probably more difficult to read if you've been through a sudden loss. It might be reassuring for widows who are unsure whether their thoughts and feelings are normal, but for me it was more like a time warp. I remember those feelings (the numbness, anger, difficulty thinking straight) after the loss of my father and it was really pretty painful reading about her experience. I can't tell you, one way or other, whether it would be upsetting to you, but it's definitely emotional.

    And, yeah, I'm a really emotional chick, too. A little too empathic for my own good.

  6. I have a hard time reading these type of books, even though so many people say how good they are. I've been thinking for years that I should read Angela's Ashes, but just can't make myself take on the pain.

    I finally posted my '8 Things About Me' meme that you tagged me for weeks ago. It's located here.

  7. Booklogged,

    Maybe I like to torment myself, with all the harsh memoirs I've been reading, lately! I've read Angela's Ashes; it was definitely about a hard life, but I think it's easier to read a memoir if you can hold your distance and read as an observer. The problem with The Year of Magical Thinking was that I've felt those feelings - not as a widow, but as a 27-year-old losing her father - and it was just impossible not to remember my own experience. My personal opinion is that you should just avoid it if you think it's not right for you. I skip books people say are must-reads, all the time. It didn't occur to me that this book would be quite so painful.

    I just read your meme and loved it, thanks! I'll go back and comment.

  8. I don't think I'll be reading this one. I'm all for a good book....but this one will bring up too many issues I just don't want to read about. When I lost my brother, I was uncolsolable. He was my BEST friend and it was hard. It's been almost 18 years now, and it still tears me up, if I let it. That's the main reason this one doesn't have any appeal to me.

    Nice review though. I'm glad you liked it!

  9. Stephanie,

    I loved it and hated it - not sure I made that clear. I wouldn't read it if I were you! While I think the writing is beautiful and Didion did a great job of imparting the feelings of grief, it was miserable because I felt like I was going through it all over, again. I kind of wish I'd read a review that expressed how painful the book is to read.

    So sorry about the loss of your brother. I know you've mentioned it before, but I can't remember if I said anything. It's been almost 18 years since my father died, also. I'll never stop missing him, not ever.

  10. Pete & I, were shaking our heads when we left the theatre. "There's no crying in baseball," or Spiderman!

    I took loads of notes when reading AYoMT. Seems like ever word written has a basis in human truth.

    Did you find it odd how she didn't lean on the Lord or church?

    Although, I do not doubt her conviction, she never seeks the church's help. It would have made a totally different book.

  11. Anonymous3:29 PM

    I enjoyed this book so much--not in a whoo hoo kind of way, but having had some amount of tragic loss and personal tragedy, I could relate to so much of what she was saying. The part about his shoes ripped my heart open because I remember my mom finally cleaning my dad's closet. It is a hard hard read, but wonderful and beautiful despite it's difficulty.

  12. Maggie,

    Yeah, that sobbing at the end was over the top. I enjoyed the rest of the movie but I have to wonder why they went so nutty on the crying!

    Oh, yes, lots of truth in Magical Thinking. I found myself reflecting on other losses, as well. And, it was kind of nice to note that she mentioned the funeral itself is not when most people do their crying. We were actually laughing at my dad's funeral and his cousin found that very upsetting, but at that point we'd been waiting to put him to rest and I think there was such a huge sense of relief that there was a brief, false time of levity, if that makes sense. I mentally compared, a lot, but didn't take many notes.

    Yeah, I did find it odd that there was no mention of God or faith at all. I couldn't have gotten through the year 1990 without either; you're right, it would have been a different book if that had been the case for her.


    Yes, same here. I didn't love it because it was too painful, but I could relate in many ways. I hated it when my mother got rid of my father's clothing; I wasn't ready. As I was reading, I also was reminded that my father was buried in the suit he bought for my wedding. That was oddly comforting, at the time.

  13. I bought this book from when it was first released, and I've kept it on my shelf for reference. I can't bring myself to read it right now, but I did give a copy to a friend in one of our book clubs who found it very meaningful. I can't imagine the loss of TWO people in your family so close together.

    I always get enormous comfort from C.S. Lewis. I'm going to drop Madeleine L'Engle for my next Once Upon A Time Challenge and pick up Lewis' The Great Divorce, also considered fantasy.

  14. Bellezza,

    I actually lost three people in my family in two years, so I guess I could relate to that a bit - not the same, though. I lost a cousin, the only grandparent I ever really knew (my paternal grandmother) and then my father. And, then, my mother found out she had ovarian cancer. We had a couple of really crappy years. I can't even begin to imagine what my mother-in-law went through when she lost her brother and his entire family (wife and 4 kids) in a plane crash .

    I love, love, love C.S. Lewis. I can't wait to read your thoughts on The Great Divorce!

  15. Joan Didion, because of her precision, is really good at describing misery and pain. She has an essay about migraines called "In Bed" that I don't recommend to you because I don't want to be responsible for making you ill. It was so convincing, I felt headache-y, and I'm not really prone to that.

  16. Bybee,

    I'll avoid "In Bed" like the plague, thank you. :)

    She is definitely a convincing writer.

  17. I didn't love TYoMT, but I did appreciate the honesty. You wrote:

    I would never attempt to read the book immediately after a loss, or possibly even during those first few years when any reminder of your loved one leaves you with a sensation much like that of having a bruise poked. I remember that C. S. Lewis's book about his wife, Joy Gresham, was also eloquently painful; in fact, I abandoned the book because it served no purpose during a time of grief to read about someone else's agony.

    I feel just the opposite. When we were in the depths of our grief, we turned to an assortment of books. We both read First Year, Worst Year (author's name escapes me now) and Ghost Rider by Neal Peart. These were both heartbreakingly sad (Peart lost his daughter and a year later his wife - yes, life isn't fair, is it? Sometimes is just plain sucks.), yet Rod and I both found them to be helpful as they validated our own feelings, giving voice to our thoughts, helping us realize we weren't going crazy.

    I did thumb through these two, plus Didion's a few days ago, looking for quotes for my 5-28 post and found I didn't want to re-read anymore than necessary. Perhaps having moved forward, the words are too painful now.

    Who knows. Normal isn't normal anymore, ya know?

  18. Les,

    I wondered how you felt about grief books. To me, the most comforting books were those that had a spiritual bent, which I know is not your thing. There were two in particular that I found helpful. One was still available, the last time I looked: Good Grief, a very slim little book that walks you through the steps of grief. I needed to know what I felt was normal and that book was manageable during a time I had trouble concentrating.

    I don't remember the title of the other book, but it was specifically about losing a father and it was immensely comforting. Nobody I knew had lost a father and most still had a full set of grandparents (3 of mine were gone by the time I was 10; the last died the year before my father's death). So, I felt like a little island of grief. I think for those of us who are readers, it's only natural to turn to books for comfort. And, it's the same as reading anything else - what works is not necessarily the same for everyone. For me, the kind of book that said, "You're okay" or "There's a light at the end of the tunnel" was what worked best.

  19. You want to hear something "odd" Nancy? Although, I'm sure it's not odd to either of us. Yesterday I was doing my "zone maintenance" in the travel section. Got to the very end, the very last "bay" of books. The last shelf. The last book. And tucked along side that last book was a slim copy of Good Grief. There was another little book, but I can't remember now what it was. So, who put them there? How long had they been stuck in the wrong section? Of all people to Zone that section, isn't it intersting that I wound up discovering them? Who knows. Maybe another employee knew I was over there and slipped them in while I wasn't looking.

    You and Bellezza were talking about multiple losses. My grandmother lost her mom, sister, and husband all within 2 months of each other back in 1984. I can't begin to imagine.

    What day did your dad die?

  20. Les,

    I love freaky "coincidences" like that! :)

    It's hard to fathom losing that many people so quickly, isn't it? I don't know how my MIL handled her losses and stayed so completely sane. Three in two years was more than enough for me.

    My dad died on July 7, 1990 - the day before my sister's 30th birthday and exactly a month after she gave birth to her second child. It was a Friday.


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