Monday, May 10, 2010

The Year of Magical Thinking

“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” That is precisely what happened to author Joan Didion. While this would make a memorable opening line for a novel, it is actually a sentence from the very beginning of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of what she experienced during the immediate year following the sudden loss, on December 30, 2003, of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne.

Didion’s world was already in turmoil when she and her husband sat down to dinner that night. A short time earlier, they had been sitting at the bedside of their only daughter, Quintana, where she lay unconscious, suffering from a combination of septic shock and pneumonia. Fearful that their daughter might not survive what had begun as a relatively benign health problem, the couple returned that fateful evening for a quiet dinner alone. Then it happened. Suddenly, while in the midst of preparing their dinner, Didion sensed that something was terribly wrong with her husband. When Dunne did not respond to her efforts to revive him, she called for help – but it was too late. Her partner of 40 years had been snatched from her forever.

What follows is Joan Didion’s recollection of how she reacted to her husband’s death over the next twelve months - while still having to cope with the increasing likelihood that her daughter might also be taken from her. Before the experience of losing a spouse or child, it is impossible for one to predict how she will react to a loss of that magnitude. Didion, an experienced researcher, turned to the literature of grieving so that she would better know what she should expect to experience in the first year without her husband. She might have been a bit surprised that her grieving so closely followed the pattern she read about in most medical books, memoirs, self-help books, and novels. But what most surprised her was that, at times, she was literally crazy, though she prefers to call her crazy behavior` “magical thinking.” She expected to be “crazy with grief” but not to exhibit the kind of bizarre behavior that characterized her behavior in 2004.

The Year of Magical Thinking is one woman’s account of what it was like to be wrenched from her husband and writing partner of forty years. Dunne and Didion worked so closely together that she feared that she might never be able to write again, having lost the best editor and literary confidant she ever had. It might be one woman’s story, but there is much here for those having experienced similar losses and for those who sense that such losses are approaching. It is a frank and honest description, if a bit rambling at times, and even a bit repetitive – two qualities that likely mimic Didion’s 2004 state-of-mind.

The four-disc audio version of The Year of Magical Thinking is read by stage actress Barbara Caruso. Caruso so perfectly captures the tone of voice in which the book is written that I often had to remind myself that I was not being read to by Joan Didion, herself.

This is not an easy book to read, nor is it one that will please everyone who has experienced this level of grief. It should, however, be considered as a touchstone for those seeking insight into the grieving process.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I read it soon after my father died in 2006 and found it very comforting and harrowing all at the same time.

  2. I, on the other hand, hated this book! I thought Didion was a phony.

    If you want to read an outstanding book about grief, read Ann Hood's "Comfort: A Journey through Grief".

  3. I saw this in play form earlier in the year and it was so moving. Absolutely devastating, but beautiful at the same time.

  4. I bought this ages ago but haven't gotten up the courage to read it yet.

  5. I had mixed emotions about the content, Bybee, but admired the writing. Didion seems to be a little bit of a cold person in this narrative but I have to wonder if she was that way only during the twelve months she writes about or not.

  6. JoAnn, I noticed that ratings for this book are all over the map with lots of highs and lots of lows. It seems to be one of those books...

  7. Elise, I didn't realize this had been turned into a stage performance. I'm not sure I'm ready for that.

  8. Let us know what you think of it, Jena. Everyone seems to have a strong reaction to the book, for sure.

  9. Sam -- this is a real excellent review. Your impression of the book is much the same as mine was -- I found it so moving, compelling -- it was wrenching.
    And I agree that it would be a good book for people who have tried [or are trying] to make sense of the trauma of loss.
    Not because Didion makes sense of it [loss]. But because she so boldly shows that while making sense of it all is impossible, delineating the feelings [the experience] is still important.... maybe the only hope at anything therapeutic is to know of someone else's struggle with sorrow. This is offered here in the book.

  10. Thanks for that, Cip. I always wonder how different my reaction might have been to the written words when I only experience an audio version of a book. The reader was good on this one...very dry and subdued, as one would expect considering the subject.


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