The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (Vintage Books, 2006)

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“This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself”

Prior to picking up this memoir about the loss of Joan Didion’s husband, author John Dunne, during the period in which her daughter was in a coma, I was unaware of Didion or Dunne’s influence on the literary community.  Maybe my lack of familiarity with Didion’s work contributed to my feelings of unease and frustration in the first few pages of the book.  Initially, I felt as though Didion concerned herself less with giving proper homage to her husband of forty some years and more about flaunting her expansive intelligence and worldly, expensive experience.  She frequently draws on a number of celebrities as a reference to describe her feelings and I felt put off by her bragging in the wake of her husband’s sudden heart attack.  Her husband died in 2004 and her memoir was published in 2006.  How could she possibly have time to reflect on her loss in such a short period of time?  Now that I have completed her memoir, I would defend her fiercely to any critic challenging the beauty and heartache of this piece.  Disappointed readers say they were struck by how cold she seemed and that the book never provided any insight or advice.  Really, folks?  Was Joan Didion not informed of the “standard” of grief?

Indeed, Didion acknowledges that she sought out literary resources on how she should be behaving after the devastating loss of a loved one (the social worker tells the doctor, prior to the news of John’s death, that Joan can handle it, that she’s a “cool customer”.  The sting of such a label follows Didion throughout the memoir).  However, she finds that the “how-to” guides and poems (“some ‘practical,’ some ‘inspirational,’ most of either useless”) insufficient.  I had misread her mourning as boastfulness about her intelligence.  When she cites these various authors, theorists, and poets, she is simply trying to relate and make logic out of her new life and I’m sure she relied on these same instincts during any major event in her life.  Why does she have to meet the reader’s expectation on how to grieve?  Readers misinterpret her work as a work she should be providing for the sake of them, rather than a self-reflection.  She makes this purpose very apparent in the first couple of pages:  she needs her words and beliefs to penetrate, “if only for myself.”

We want to pity Joan Didion, but she won’t let us see how broken her “year of magical thinking” has made her, and when we’re not allowed to pity her it frustrates us.  This memoir is Didion’s choice to share her own experience of loss with us and rather than disapproving disdainfully at her “take it or leave it” attitude, we should honor the difficult decision she makes to expose her soul in such a raw and passionate way.  This memoir is absolutely gripping.


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