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 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 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 29 November 2012
Although I am not a fan of memoirs, I found Didion's memoir of the first year after the loss of her husband both sad and illuminating.
Sad, because, nine months ago, we lost my beloved father. I've had to watch my Mom grieve the end of one of life's grand love affairs - the passionate love affair between my parents, which lasted nearly 60 years.
Illuminating because, at times, Didion expresses her personal grieving in such a universal way that her loss became my Mother's loss. Didion gave a voice to the process of grief that my Mom, a widow, is experiencing and which I, a still-married daughter, have not yet experienced.
That Dunne brought deep meaning into Didion's life is unquestionable; her struggle to control or somehow change the events of that year, at times, makes fascinating reading because one senses that her emotions, her sens of loss are deep so that if she touched on them, she probably wouldn't cope.
But, while reading, I was struck by another level of sadness: at the hospital, which declared her husband dead, the social worker said of Didion's reaction, "It's okay; she's a pretty cool customer."
I constantly found myself asking, where ARE her emotions? What IS she feeling?
She could, and did, articulate the practical details of her year of grieving in microscopic detail, but there were times when I found her determined and strong-willed focus on medical facts, and the logistics of Dunne's death and her daughter's illness, disconcerting. Understandable, yes, and sad because it suggested a desperate attempt at mastering her overwhelming loss, but still disconcerting. She is, as the social worker said, "a pretty cool customer," and she manages to keep her deepest emotions very private.
The title of the book explains a lot: THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. "Magical" to me has a wondrous, positive connotation; the word implies exciting events that take the ordinary and somehow transform them into the extraordinary. I only understood how Didion could apply it to the year following the death of her husband, a year in which her only child lay dying, when I looked up the meaning in the dictionary for this review.
Rather than the magic in her title meaning `an enchanting quality or phenomenon' or `wonderful, exciting,' the MAGICAL in Didion's title relies more on the definition of "magic" as `the supposed art of influencing the course of events by the occult control of nature or of the spirits.'
Because, to me, that's where the sadness in this book really lies: Didion's desperate desire to influence, to change by some power she didn't have, the death of her husband. And, even when, she couldn't "bring him back," she still had to go through the process of accepting that death is a part of life. That no matter how privileged, or intelligent, or talented, or lucky one is, no matter how many famous names one can drop, death comes to us all: "Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust." (Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act IV, Sc ii)
For Didion, there was no magic in her year of grieving. No amount of intellectualising her grief could change that ordinary moment when, at the dinner table, her beloved husband died. He was gone and, to resume her life, she had to "relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead" and move into a future beyond grief and beyond mourning.
on 7 October 2011
Initially I found this book a bit heavy going and put it down, intending to attempt to read it again. I did and I'm glad I gave it the second chance. At times I found myself getting upset reading it, though my husband is very much alive and I hope he will be for years to come. Perhaps it was because she describes the ordinary things they did and it hit me that one never knows when their loved one will be taken from them. While the author had a life that was privileged in many ways she also describes tragedies that beset her husband's family ie one of his brothers took his own life and his niece (Dominick Dunne's daughter) Dominique was murdered. I think that even people who have not lost a husband or wife would understand some of the almost irrational thoughts and deeds that the bereaved do after the death of a loved one - intending to tell the departed person about something that happened during the day, not wanting to change something at home in case they don't like it (though they're gone) and so on. For me it was like some of the irrational thoughts were out of fear that letting John go would be a form of disloyalty.Even the bit where she recalls where John said "when something happens..." struck a chord because I think that most of us try to avoid the fact that we will go some day before our loved ones or they will go before us. She didn't shirk from admitting that they had their rows either - I got the feeling that even though they had nearly 40 years of marriage it was like the blink of an eye when he died. Recommended reading and if you find it tough going like I did at first - give it a chance and go back to it.
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.
on 5 January 2014
This is the book that Didon wrote after the very sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, at home over dinner. At the same time her daughter was seriously ill in hospital, and was not aware of her fathers death until a while after the event.
She wrote in the year it after his death, and completed the manuscript one day after the anniversary. They had been married since the early sixties, and were both writers, and spent time in New York and on the West Coast.
In the book she explores her feelings, sometime with lucidity and raw emotion, and other times the writing is less coherent. She writes of the grieving process, and the way that she coped with him missing from her life, the emptiness of the house, the altered routines and void that he left.
She left the manuscript fairly well untouched before publication ash I feel that it really does reflect her feeling over that year, especially as she had to cope alone with her daughter being very seriously ill. It is well written, but is a bleak and uncompromising book to read.