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Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

the year of magical thinking

Title: The Year of Magical Thinking

Author: Joan Didion

Genre: Memoir

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.

Grade: 99/100

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.

Quintana Roo Dunne, John Dunne, and Joan Didion at their home in Malibu in 1976.

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.

As part of Weekly Geeks #22, Jodie (Book Gazing) asked me: Is the Joan Didion book light reading or would you describe it differently?

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.

Other Reviews: A Book A Week; Care’s Online Book Club; Confessions of a Bibliophile;

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • charley June 18, 2009, 7:53 pm

    I have not read Didion, but this sounds good.

  • bermudaonion June 18, 2009, 8:19 pm

    A memoir that you’ve rated a 99 is definitely going on my wish list.

  • Mindy Withrow June 18, 2009, 9:46 pm

    Wonderful review, Kim! I read this several years ago but have been thinking of reading it again, as the first read was for an assigned review (you can read it here: http://mindywithrow.com/?p=48) and I had to come from a particular perspective. I remember loving how she weaved in all the medical jargon, and of course all the literary references! And I agree with you that the prose is surprisingly easy though the theme is certainly not. I still haven’t read any of her novels, but they’re on my TBR list.

  • Joanne June 18, 2009, 10:08 pm

    You put into words exactly how I feel about this book! Especially when describing whether it is heavy or light. For me is was the best type of writing, so light and conversational that I read straight through without any hesitations. But the feeling of the book stayed with me. It was deep in that wonderful way that made me see that no matter how much of an impact it had on me – to actually experience what Didion had would tear me apart.

  • Teresa June 19, 2009, 6:34 am

    I agree that this book is both light and heavy. It’s an easy and fairly quick read, but the ideas and emotions are tough to contemplate. I’m going to be seeing a one-woman stage production of this novel next weekend, and I expect it will be emotionally wrenching. (I’m quick to cry when watching live theatre.)

  • rebeccareid June 19, 2009, 6:43 am

    This sounds wonderful, even though it’s a depressing subject. I hope to read it someday!

  • Joanna June 19, 2009, 7:12 am

    I’ve been wondering about this one for years – thanks for the review. I always thought it would be too depressing, but I’m tempted to pick it up now!

  • Jenny June 19, 2009, 7:37 am

    Great review! I nearly bought this book in England, before I came to my senses and remembered that I could get it much cheaper in America. At the library. I didn’t realize this was a memoir, but it sounds really good!

  • bookwormans June 19, 2009, 1:53 pm


    Thank you for asking me a question on this week’s Weekly Geek post.

    I have posted my answers here: http://completeandunabridged.blogspot.com/2009/06/weekly-geek-2009-22-cathcing-up-part-2.html

  • Jeanne June 19, 2009, 2:18 pm

    You’ve answered the questions I had about this book, so now I have to read it. Soon.

  • theexile June 19, 2009, 3:53 pm

    It’s one of the best books about grief I’ve ever read, although the novel There Will Never Be Another You by Carolyn See dwells in part on the theme with insight.

  • Care June 19, 2009, 8:00 pm

    Wonderful review!

  • Savvy Working Gal June 20, 2009, 10:48 am

    Kim –

    Excellent review. You’ve inspired me to re-read this book.

  • avisannschild June 20, 2009, 6:46 pm

    Wow, this sounds like a fantastic book! I’ve been meaning to read Didion for an age, but haven’t picked up any of her books. Do you think this is a good place to start?

    This is a great review!

  • Jena June 23, 2009, 1:21 am

    I bought this book and it’s been at the top of my TBR pile for ages (which is the pile I will get to when I get through all my ARCS and review copies). Except that when we moved last fall, it ended up in a box that we didn’t unpack (because we knew this apartment would be transitional, we left a lot of stuff in boxes–even though I thought I’d unpacked all the books). So even though I actually did get to the end of my pile of ARC’s for about a week, I couldn’t put my hands on The Year of Magical Thinking because I have NO IDEA what box this could be in. (I really thought I’d unpacked all the book boxes, because packing and unpacking books doesn’t is about the only part of moving I like.) Argh!

    On the bright side, we do move into our house in two weeks. I get to pack and unpack all our books again! And I’m sure when we unpack all our boxes, The Year of Magical thinking will settle in quite comfortably on the TBR Next shelf. Again.

  • cicero109 July 7, 2009, 10:12 pm

    I have just started reading The Year of Magical Thinking and have high hopes for it.