Book Review

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

reading the best of books in the worst of times

The Year of Magical Thinking is one of the most beautiful books i have ever read

ever

i wept in the middle and at the end of well over half the chapters

this book moved me, constantly

The Year of Magical Thinking is beautiful because it is full of love and domesticity and family and also because – having watched the 2017 documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold – the doomed hopefulness that Didion allows to enter into this memoir of grief following the death of her husband and trauma around the serious injury/illness of her daughter-

sorry, the hopeful tone she wishes towards (the recovery she believes in will not happen) – Didion’s next [major?] book, Blue Nights is about the death of her daughter, hot on the heels of her beginning to feel like she had dealt with the loss of her husband, John.

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gush gush gush

love is important

///

It was almost a month ago that I read The Year of Magical Thinking and tossed out the above half-sentences and confused ideas. It was difficult to know what to say about this book, to be honest, as I don’t think I’ve read such a painful text for a long time.

By this point in her life (2005), Didion was well-known and widely acclaimed, and though her essays and book-length non-fiction mentioned and explored personal experiences, this is different (from those I have read) in that it is entirely about the personal, about the private.

The Year of Magical Thinking is not journalism, it is not Joan Didion as witness, it is Joan Didion as subject.

///

The narrative of the memoir covers roughly a year, starting with Didion’s husband having a heart attack at a domestic dinner in the downtime between Christmas and NYE, just after they’d visited their comatose daughter in a hospital.

During the twelve months that are covered, Didion’s daughter’s health oscillates (though seems improved at the end), while Didion herself moves through the classic stages of grief as well as more unique, more contemporary, ones.

Didion explores modes of distraction from (and modes of engagement with) her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness: she writes about what she feels, how she acts, what she reads, how she thinks and why and how and for what reason any “recovery” [from grieving] is impossible.

///

Didion’s prose is direct and honest. She is witty and funny in places, even in the midst of writing deep sadness. She explores – in memory – the history of her marriage and earlier experiences of parenthood, and all of this memorialising happens, openly, through the prism of grief. We do not get “flashbacks”, or discrete memories presented in the present tense, instead these are descriptions of how she is remembering, rather than what she is remembering. Does that make sense?

It’s a short book, but a heavy book; it’s a portrait of a happy, successful life and a well-matched, inspiring, reliable relationship, which is all the more moving given how rare positive, long-term, relationships are to encounter in real life (in my experience anyway, especially when considering heterosexual relationships that began before both parties were over twenty-five).

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I suppose I don’t have much more to say about this book.

Also, I’m tired and I feel a bit sick and I want to go for a bike ride and I want to read the novel I’m currently reading and I want to do some more recreational/creative writing than this and I want to cuddle my dog and I want to-

I’m still deep in the lockdown, with no likelihood of any short-term change. Here in Canada, it looks likely that the lockdown may extend all the way to September, which is a very long time away indeed.

People are wearing masks less and I don’t like that: everyone should be wearing a mask. Why wouldn’t you wear a mask? For a start, it is a comforting, anonymising, accessory, which is something ones accessories often don’t help with.

There are aggressively-policed protests throughout the country south of the hour-away border, there are tensions between nuclear powers in Asia and the pandemic is still raging and everyone is so bored and they shouldn’t be: these are the interesting times we were always encouraged to fear, and instead of fear, a lot of people feel apathetic, though maybe not in the US right now.

I’m going to stop. Joan Didion is excellent. This book by Joan Didion is excellent.

Hopefully I’ll have something more concrete to say next time…


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1 comment on “The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

  1. An amazing book indeed. Her writing is enviable. I’ve read her fiction my whole adult life but this one was special becuz my husband died of a sudden heart attack over 20 yrs ago, and I had a similar year tho not with a sick child. She helped me process it even so many years later.

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