Title: The Year of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion
Pages: 227 (paperback)
One Sentence Summary: In the middle of their daughter’s serious medical issues, Joan Didion’s husband dies unexpectedly and Didion tries to pick up the pieces.
One Sentence Review: Despite the fact that this is a memoir about grief, I finished it and immediately wanted to re-read the entire thing — that’s how good this book is.
Long Summary: For forty years, Joan Didion and her husband John Dunne spent almost all of their time together. They were really more than just married — they were a team that wrote, worked, and raised their daughter together.
On December 30, 2003, just as they were sitting down to dinner, Dunne collapsed, dying almost instantly from a “massive coronary event.” Didion’s memoir chronicles the year after Dunne’s death, a year she characterizes as a time of magical thinking in which grief makes her act and feel just a little bit crazy.
Long Review: For a book all about death, The Year of Magical Thinking is surprisingly not depressing. Sure, it’s pretty sad, and I’ll admit to tearing up near the end, but the book doesn’t dwell on the bad. The book is almost more of a tribute to Dunne and his role in Didion’s life as is it a memoir about Didion herself.
What impressed me about Didion when I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem was her ability to observe and get inside people. She has a very keen eye for detail and for getting at the heart of the characters she writes about. What makes this memoir special is how well Didion can turn that sharp journalists instinct on herself in the midst of grief so deep it seems impossible to get out of.
In the middle of a year when she admits to frequently acting crazy, Didion can somehow pull herself out of that to understand she’s being crazy, accept the crazy and some level, and then be brave enough to write that crazy down. In some ways, this makes the book wander, but it’s a wandering sort of journey I wanted to be led on.
The book moves back and forth almost seamlessly between the year after Dunne’s death, memories of their life together, and the medical texts and classic pieces of literature Didion used to help explain her own grief.
The constant references to outside texts — be it the poetry of Earl McGrath or medical texts on the nature of grief — at first seemed odd, but quickly began to make sense. Of course a journalist like Didion would do as much research as she could to try and understand her husband’s unexpected death and her own confusing responses to it.
One particular technique I liked was the use of medical jargon and language. There are points when Didion will go out of her way to explain what a medical term means, but most of the time she just places them in the book and moves on. This could be frustrating, but what makes it work is that it gives the reader the tiniest sense of what Didion was going through. She didn’t really know what all of this meant, it was just words, and words that she really didn’t understand.
I think the book is both light and heavy. The actual prose is very easy to read — Didion is a fabulous writer and her writing moves along easily. You don’t get trapped by the writing or sentence structure at all — I finished this book in just a couple of evenings.
But the topic of the the book is much more weighty. I don’t think the full impact of Dunne’s death hit me until the very end of the book when Didion stopped comparing every day in the current year to the year before (when Dunne was alive) because now her memory of a year ago is for a date when her husband was dead. That’s the moment when I almost could grasp how much she actually lost. That feeling is heavy, it’s sad, it’s a lot for a book to do.
I guess my point is to not go into this book thinking that it’s going to be easy. It’s absolutely worth it — this was a fantastic book — but it can be emotionally difficult to read. Now that I think about it, I’m starting to believe that most of the best books demand something from you in order to be great. The Year of Magical Thinking is no exception.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!