book review

“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking
New York: Knopf, 2005
ISBN 1-4000-4314-X 
HighBridge Audio, narrated by Barbara Caruso

Highly Recommended

On the evening of December 30, 2003, Joan Didion’s husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, sat down to dinner in their apartment in New York City. Didion and Dunne had just come home from visiting their daughter, Quintana, who was in a drug-induced coma in a New York hospital. While Didion tossed the salad, Dunne suddenly stopped speaking to her from the next room. He had collapsed, and probably died instantly, from a massive heart attack.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s account of dealing with her grief and the loss of her companion. In addition to mourning her husband, she had to deal with the continued illness of her daughter. After Quintana was discharged from the hospital in New York, where pneumonia had developed into septic shock, she and her husband flew to California for rest, relaxation, and recuperation. On the tarmac at the Los Angeles airport Quintana collapsed and was taken to UCLA Medical Center, where she underwent a long operation for bleeding in the brain. She spent several months in the neuro intensive care unit and was later flown by air ambulance back to New York for extensive rehab.

While the near-death of her daughter forms a backdrop, most of Didion’s book deals with her reaction to her husband’s death. Both Didion and Dunne were writers all their lives, and each was always the other’s first and best editor. Except for the first five months of their marriage, they had both always worked at home; they were, therefore, almost constant companions for 40 years.

The magical thinking of the title refers to the non-rational, illogical thinking that Didion often found herself falling into. When she begins to give Dunne’s clothes away, she can’t bring herself to get rid of all his shoes because he might come back, and he would need shoes. She keeps thinking back over recent events, wondering if there had been some warning of what was to come, some sign that she missed, something she could have done to prevent Dunne’s death. 

And everywhere she goes, she sees something that sets her memory racing back into the past, back to their times together, and straight into what she calls the vortex: having to face “the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself” (p. 189).

She completes the book a year and a day after Dunne’s death. Still, she says, she has found no clarity, no resolution. “In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic” (p. 226).

The time of magical thinking, of trying to find a way to rewind the movie of life and play it forward again with a different ending, is over. Yet life goes on. Perhaps writing about her grief has helped.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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