Friday, October 4, 2013

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Published October 2005 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: bought this one on audio from the public library sale
Narrator: Barbara Caruso

From Barnes and Noble:
During the Christmas holidays in 2003, novelist Joan Didion began a month of hell. Just a few days before Christmas, Didion and her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, watched helplessly as their newly married daughter, Quintana, came down with what seemed to be the flu, then contracted pneumonia, which led, within days, to complete septic shock and system breakdown. A week later, as Quintana hovered close to death, Dunne collapsed and died. Didion plunged into a mad state of "magical thinking." Her response was unfathomable: "We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and might need his shoes." A mourning no one could ever imagine.

My Thoughts:

I have read about people's reactions to loss; I have experienced loss in my own life. But I have never thought to read nonfiction  books on the subject of grief and certainly never thought to read about any particular person's experiences. If you would have told me I would have found it mesmerizing before I began, I would not have believed you. Yet I found myself fascinated by both the ways that grief bore Didion down but also by her thoughts on grieving and what she learned in the year following her husband's death. For instance, Didion talks about the difference between grief and mourning. She writes about self-pity in the wake of loss, about needing to have answers, about her inability to accept that her husband was never coming back, and about the traps that lay all about her drawing her into the past. Didion's draws the reader in with intimate and honest stories about her marriage, being a parent, and their very unusual life.

Didion's own experiences are, of course, unique (as they are for each of us), her grieving process made even more difficult by her daughter's illness which began before John Dunne died and lasted for months afterward. Drawing on research into the science of illness and the study of grief, Didion coped, in part, by learning all she could about Quintana's illness and about dealing with loss."Information was control," she says.

I had only a couple of little quibbles with the book. Didion drops names throughout the book, some I knew, some I'm sure I was supposed to know. Where she might simply have said "our friend" she said, instead "our friend Mr. Bigshot." Occasionally, too, where Didion shared what she had learned, the book got dragged down by the details.

The book was greatly enhanced for me by Barbara Caruso's narration; in voice and reading style, Caruso makes the listener believe it is her story. The only drawback to listening to this one rather than reading it? A book version would have been filled with post-it notes of things I wanted to share with you or read again. In fact, at the very end of the book, I finally just recorded a piece that I wanted to share.
"I know why we try to keep the dead alive. We try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead, let them become the photograph on the table, the name on the trust accounts, let go of them in the water. Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of them in the water."


  1. Book and author both new to me. Thank you for the review.

  2. I've read only one book about grief and that too at a very disastrous time for me. The book connected so well with me because of that. I wonder how the book would feel now, I should try rereading it. I've heard a lot about Joan Didion's books but I haven't read any. This one sounds fabulous.

  3. This is the only work of Didion's that I've read, and like you, I listened to the Barbara Caruso audio version. I also found it fascinating--I have no idea how I would react to such overwhelming loss, but I thought Didion's reaction to be understandable.

  4. I read this (and a few other books about grief) after the tragic death of my 25-year-old stepdaughter. I found comfort in Didion's words, feeling reassured that my own feelings of loss were normal and that I wasn't going crazy. I should dig out my book (which is littered with post-it notes) and compose a review. Or maybe not.

  5. I have a couple of books on my shelf similar to this, but not this one. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair stands out in my memory. I haven't read it yet, but it is one I hope to get to soon. I always avoided this one for some reason. I think because of the mixed reviews I've read of it.