on 10 August 2008
Joan Didion lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, as they were sitting down to dinner on December 30, 2003. What follows is an amazing journey (one that hadn't been completed by the end of the book) through the deals we make with ourselves and with the World in order to avoid the unavoidable. This is NOT an inspirational story. It is raw, difficult to read, heartbreaking.
What is present in the telling is what the reader brings to it. Speaking for myself, I could thoroughly understand Didion's decision not to part with John's shoes, because he would need them "when he came back." Her coming back from a walk with news for him only to get all the way to the apartment before remembering. These are things that I have done, and until I sat down to read The Year of Magical Thinking, I thought I was the only one who grieved this way.
Didion spends a good deal of time on society's insistence that we not "dwell on" our grief or indulge in "self pity." The truth is that it is healthy to grieve, and that it has its own timetable for every single person who goes through it. This is one person's experience; it may not be yours, but it is educational in many ways. I find it amazing that the most accurate depiction of how to take care of a griefstricken person comes from a 1922 Emily Post book on etiquette. All these years later, and we have gotten farther from what is needed, not closer. This, for obvious reasons, saddened me more than anything I read in Year of Magical Thinking.
Knowing that shortly after Year was released, Joan Didion also lost her beautiful daughter, Quintana, only makes the experience more bitter. I am so grateful to Joan Didion for sharing her experience. I usually trade books after I've finished reading them - this one, I placed back on the shelf so that I can re-read, study and learn in future years.
on 3 June 2006
From the moment one picks up this poignant memoir one passes into a world slightly softer, slightly muted, and slightly off track from the every day. The very tone of Didion's prose conveys the muffled sensibility she must have been experiencing the entire first year after her beloved husband's sudden death from cardiac failure. It's a magnificent work, done with stellar craftsmanship. Didion manages to explore her grief, and the people and events surrounding it, via methods that are neither whiny nor self-indulgent, but which border on the fantastic and which are ultimately instructive. John surely is beaming at her from his current dimension.
Her introspection is extremely clinical in its self appraisal and criticism. She acknowledges madness, horror, confusion, and every other emotion on the roller-coaster of acute grief. Like many of us, when she experiences a gap in understanding she turns to books, the ultimate givers of wisdom. When these betray her by failing to illuminate, she turns to logic and, finally, to observation.
This Buddhist like observation is mesmerizing. Readers cannot help but relate their own life experiences to Didion's struggle to make sense out of the insensibility of death, and be comforted.
Every physical detail of this book is strategic, and I loved discovering each of these tangible tributes. From the dust cover, lettered in black and blue (red and gold in the UK), with the blue spelling out `John', to the back cover photo with John and Quintana regarding the photographer while Joan focuses her gaze on them, to the author photo on the back flap, depicting a pale elegant woman clearly changed by harsh events, the entire effort is beautifully complete.
I inhaled this book in two settings, and will likely read it again and again, if only to get a sense of companionship and sisterhood through life's travails. There is a reason this book won the National Book Award, and is the talk of every salon. It will endure the ages.
on 14 February 2012
This book for me was a first. I read it and when I had finished I had utterly no idea how on earth to review it, because of the juxtaposition between the sensitive subject matter and my reaction to it. I had a sense that in criticising this book in any way, I was somehow a bad person, but as a review, I still have to be honest about what I thought of it.
The book is Didion's account of the first year following her husbands death, after he suffers a heart attack at home the day before New Years Eve. Throughout the following year their daughter Quintana suffers several episodes of ill health, and in fact also died shortly before the books' publication, though Didion chose not to update her manuscript to reflect this.
Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne were both writers and so I guess I expected something special here, I at least expected her thinking to be magical given the title, her words on the experience of grief to be moving and perhaps inspiring. But...........
It's cold. The whole book, it's very remote and detached. It's short, and repetitive, filled with quotes from other people's work on the nature of grief and lines from other people's poems, which if removed would leave only anecdotes that would be of interest to family members and the same stories repeated more than once.
It is like a collection of jumbled extracts from a diary, there is no cohesive narrative, and it is not what I expected: an insightful poetic reflection on the nature of death and loss, more a list of facts, an essay. It is much more essay than memoir.
It feels terrible to say that a book by a woman about the death of her husband is a bad book, but it is, and she even comes across badly as a person, showing off her contacts and lifestyle. At some point she writes that having when she read the memoir of D.H Lawrence's widow she felt she was morbid and self pitying, and you certainly can't accuse Didion of that.She doesn't even seem to experience the known stages of grief.
There is another review on here by A.Ross which says that he cant imagine anyone going through the grief process would find this book illuminating in any way and I can only concur
You are left with the feeling that if this were the writing of an ordinary widow with an ordinary husband it would never have been printed, and the reason that it was is because Didion and Dunne were respected on the literary scene and those around the literary scene would be interested in their story because of who they were. This genuinely does feel like something of limited interest to friends and family and not something which would resonate with widows and those grieving everywhere, a lesson in how to love, lose and live on.
Not a year of magical thinking, a year of banal repetitive thinking. But I still feel guilty for criticising it given that it's about a man dying etc.. 4/10
on 11 September 2006
This small book packs an enormous emotional punch. During the year of the title, not only does Didion have to come to terms with her grief over her husband's sudden death but she has to see her daughter through harrowing - and seemingly unexplainable - medical emergencies, including brain surgery. If this were fiction, you wouldn't believe it. Didion's straightforward and elegant writing gives the reader the space to contemplate their own feelings towards grief and this book will ring true with anyone who has lost anyone close. A truly exceptional book.
on 22 December 2006
Joan Didion's gifts lie in her unique ability to analyse what she observes in a personal way without moving into the more flash regions of gonzo journalism. She's an engaging and breezy essayist, intelligent but not an intellectual. Self-aware but not self-indulgent or self-obsessed. She's an excellent writer, observer, and witness of our times.
In this book, she turns her questioning heart and analytic mind to the sudden and unexpected death of her husband and her grieving over his loss while dealing with the grave illness of her daughter. Heavy material, yes, but she writes with courage, style, wit, and both depth and luminosity of heart.
This book is a gift to anyone who has grieved, or who is grieving. Why? Because Grief is such an isolating, isolated place to be -- even with all the support in the world -- and I fully feel that this book is able to actually help a person to feel less alone in the face of loss and death. Joan Didion accomplishes this not by offering us any answers, but by sharing her confusion and pain with us in the only way she knows how -- as a writer. And she shares so fully and generously -- and with such honesty of heart -- that one cannot but be moved and helped along, and made to feel less alone and probably more able to cope with life and death.
Writing and reading can be life-saving experiences. Alice Walker said that, when we write, 'the life we save may be our own'. I get the feeling that Joan Didion, by sharing her story with us, is saving her own life and also may be saving the lives of others as well. The title of Joan Didion's latest collection is 'We Tell Stories in Order to Live'.
I found, after I had read this book, that Joan Didion's daughter died soon after it was written -- the author lost her husband and her daughter in less than two years. Listen to this woman's story: she is humble and she is wise.
on 23 July 2015
Very heart-breaking because of what happened subsequently to her daughter after publication ( I heard this on the radio 4).... but for me personally, who had also recently lost a husband, it was a comfort to read that my symptoms & phobias were not particular to me.... e.g. a feeling that you get just before crying, but which in our case just stayed & choked one without the relief of tears. I had never read about that one before. It was very therapeutic therefore, for me to know she felt it too...... and whilst I read this book, it became for awhile my best friend.
on 7 September 2011
"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
This book has simple sentences like this scattered through it. They're things you know, but forget. Your loved ones will die, so make the most of the time you have. I suppose I don't like to look at members of my family and think about them dying, so I push the thought away. Reading this book, I was unable to push anything away. I will die one day, and so will everyone I know. A simple thought, and not necessarily a depressing one if instead of getting immobilised by preemptive grief I decide to take action, to show people that I love and appreciate them, to call them more, to spend more time with them, to forget the little grudges and niggles that really don't matter.
Joan Didion's loss is twofold - first her daughter goes into intensive care on Christmas morning, and then just before New Year's Eve her husband dies instantly of a massive heart attack. The book explores the process of grieving, which starts with numbness, and moves through denial and magical thinking (imagining John is still alive, and that she can't throw out his shoes because he'll need them when he comes back). Only later does she really start to understand that he's dead and to grieve for him.
The book is full of beautiful sentences and painful observations. She avoids places she went with John, but finds even the loosest connections taking her back down into the vortex, thinking of him and their times together and being unable to function in the real world. The narrative flits back and forth between past and present just as her thoughts must have done throughout that year.
And then, at the end, she realises that a year has passed. Until now she has kept time by looking back to what she was doing with John the year before, but now for the first time she realises that her memory of that day a year ago is a memory that doesn't involve John. She is scared of going on into the next year, of summer coming, of her memory of John becoming less immediate, less raw. She feels it is a betrayal, to let him go like that, to become just a memory. She doesn't want to "move on" as she is supposed to - she wants to keep John with her.
There were so many other parts of this book that I liked. The writing is quite restrained - she doesn't try to play it up or describe herself bawling and tearing her hair out. It's a quiet kind of grief, but a powerful one. I got a real sense of her love and intimacy with her husband, and how painful it was to let him go. I can see myself reading this again in a little while, just to remind myself of the truths I prefer to forget.
Presumably, people will come to this book for one of three reasons: (A) They are looking for insight into grief and the process of mourning. (B) They are Joan Didion fans. (C) They've read one of the glowing reviews, or otherwise heard the "buzz" about this National Book Award winner. Addressing these in reverse order: (C) the "buzz" strikes me as literati rewarding one of their own for subpar performance. (B) I've never read Didion, but I have to believe she's capable of much better than this. (A) there's nothing to be learned here about grief -- which may be the point. At one point Didion writes that the grief of losing a loved one is by its very nature, unknowable. In keeping with this pronouncement, the reader will learn little about grief other than it is a vast void or emptiness and meaninglessness that can make one literally insane.
As if to prove this last point, Didion writes about losing her husband of forty years to a sudden heart attack as they are sitting down to dinner in about as distanced and unconnected a manner as possible. It's almost as if she set out to write the anti-grief memoir, because she doesn't portray herself as a particularly empathetic person. Which is fine, I'm not looking for warm fuzzies or solace, just a little coherence. And unfortunately, it's in very short supply -- the book reads like the scattered thoughts of a journal, and perhaps that the stage it should have been left at. But by allowing its publication, Didion achieves the formidable task of portraying herself as a woman who has lost both husband and daughter, and yet is totally unsympathetic.
Aside from the content, which is a mix of medical reportage, quoting from studies on grief, ruminations on her past, snippets of poetry and prose, the book is marred by a very problematic tone. There's a very distinct elitist thread running throughout the book, and it's hard to understand why Didion would have written it that way. Her reflections on her married life contain innumerable references to a highly privileged lifestyle (staying for weeks at the Beverly Wiltshire, flying from LA to SF for dinner, buying clothes at fancy boutiques, eating at the toniest restaurants, homemade dinners with the literati, etc.). On top of this, in detailing her struggle to understand her husband's death and daughter's coma, she alludes to her special access to doctors, private jets, clinics, etc. beyond the means of "regular" folks. It's hard to imagine that "regular" Didion wouldn't recognize the impression she was creating, but since the book was written and published whilst still in deep grief, perhaps she didn't.
Yes, it's sad that she lost her husband and collaborator, but there's something very distancing in her account of it all. And it's hard not to feel slightly manipulated when a good way into the book you learn that her husband had a history of heart trouble and wore a pacemaker, making his coronary somewhat less dramatic than her telling of it. Even more telling is the deliberate omission of his age anywhere in the book -- 71. Since it's not exactly shocking for someone of that age and medical background to drop dead, these kinds of decisions have the appearance of being made in order to foster more sympathy for Didion. Yet another problematic area relates to her daughter's case, which is treated in great detail throughout and simply vanishes at the end of the book. Her daughter died while the book was still in production and according to reports, Didion chose not to make any revisions to reflect this.
No doubt I am being churlish to some degree for criticizing Didion's portrayal of her experience. It's her life, her tragedy, and she certainly has every right to represent it however she would like to. However, placing it in the commercial realm makes it subject to comment, and my own feeling is that its simply not a very good book. That said, there are glimpses here and there of sharp writing and analysis which makes me think I might like one of her past collections of essays. Still, I can't imagine anyone going through the loss of a loved one would find this book helpful or illuminating in any way.
on 14 June 2014
I have read many books about bereavement these last 2 years none which I connected with.All I can say is even though my circumstances were different to Joan's I connected with something on every single page and made me cry and go over recent ground but this time in a more constructive way of thinking.Magical thinking is a wonderful way of putting the way you really thing about what can happen to your way of thinking when you lose someone you love with all your heart.I thank the lady who suggested Joan's book to me,it's been therapy for me this to me is a book to treasure,& I will read it again as soon as I've finished the last few chapters.
on 7 October 2015
This book was interesting - in some ways I was confused by the writing style, seemed a little "jumpy" and agitated but then it hit me that it was her grief and mourning she was referring too, which is never wrapped in a neat little bow. Therefore I accepted the writing style and tone as a reflection of what she was going through and enjoyed her writing for what it was. Definitely some tough hitting moments in there and a good overall read.