Hippo Manchester
November 10, 2005

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The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

****

Our minds can be such traitors.

In the year after the death of John Gregory Dunne, husband of Joan Didion, it wasn’t physical illness or financial troubles that threatened her. It was her own memories, her grief-soaked mind.

Poised and intelligent, Didion did what writers and scholars do when faced with difficult problems: “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.” She became something of a student of grief. She turned first to self-help books (which she dismisses as either very practical or tiresomely inspirational but not terribly helpful). Then she went to psychological and medical studies of grief. She found more thoughtful writings on grief in fiction, poetry and, to some extent, an old Emily Post book on etiquette.

What she did not find was comfort.

“Life changes fast./ Life changes in an instant./ You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends./ The question of self-pity.”

These almost lyrical lines begin the book and appear again and again, as they do in her head throughout the first year of her widowhood. Though there are times during this year when she is overcome with tears, when she sounds exhausted from carrying the loss, she also, surprisingly, describes grief as a sort of deep philosophical confusion. How could she have prevented the death of her husband? What can she do to make him come back? And yes, this deeply intelligent, extremely rational woman does to some degree believe she can make Dunne come back. It’s that phenomenon that she calls “magical thinking,” a childish form of nonsensical reasoning that her loss throws her into.

The Year of Magical Thinking is not just a brilliant exploration of the intellectual side of grief but is one of the most literate explorations of marriage and family I’ve ever read. Along with the death of her husband, Didion must endure her daughter’s prolonged illness (one that ultimately killed her between when Didion finished the book and when it hit the stores). These twin events drag her into “vortexes” of memory that leave her seemingly paralyzed. She is a mother watching a daughter deteriorate and cannot talk about it to her husband, the one person who would truly understand.

Didion writes about not knowing what she was supposed to do as a wife, about flying blind in this partnership that would last 40 years. As she discusses the loss of Dunne, we see that their marriage was an initially tentative but eventually complete intermingling of lives — personal, professional, emotional. As she describes it, Didion and Dunne had to become completely reliant on each other in order to stay together, making each other’s intellect and personality a part of their own. Didion seems shocked to realize that this had happened, shocked to realize she had achieved what initially seemed so frightening and impossible. And now, left without this half so completely integrated into her whole, she seems almost shocked that she must find a way to go on.

Magical Thinking seldom touches on emotion, making it all the more poignant. Engrossing and raw, this book offers a rare and much-appreciated glimpse into the inner monologue of an intelligence trying to make a cool examination of its own nearly overwhelming turmoil.

— Amy Diaz