The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (Alfred A.
minds can be such traitors.
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.
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
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