Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

I’ve always wanted to read some Joan Didion. Her name seemed to come up often in intellectual circles as this high standard for women writers. Me being me, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

Artsy cover shot.

Artsy cover shot.

Every ounce of praise for Didion’s writing is deserved.

I picked up a battered copy of The Year of Magical Thinking at my local library on a whim. It was there. I had the inclination to read. This is how literary love affairs start.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir told in a reconstructed stream of consciousness about the emotional trials Didion faced in the year after her husband, author John Dunne, died suddenly at the dinner table. Throughout the year Didion also finds herself facing the potential of her daughter’s death through illness and the slow dissolution of her denial.

Heavy stuff.  Yet without knowing it, I picked up the Didion book that I most needed to read.

Need is such a funny thing in the context of grief, because “need” loses all logic. Didion expertly explores this chasm, this limbo where the living must continue on when a loved one has passed. I needed to read this book because in January of 2013, my father died, and I have spent so much time closing myself off to that reality.

I was set to board a plane for Sundance for a class when I was woken by a banging on my door at 4 AM. It was my great-uncle, who told me that I needed to call my Grandmother. My father has been admitted to the hospital a few days before, his fever and pain likely symptomatic of his kidney stones. He was also a type two diabetic with kidney failure, but he had texted me to tell me that he was 100% OK and not to worry. He said today was not THE day.

But when someone tells you to call family at four in the morning, the news is never good.

I knew before my grandmother picked up what she would say but the news of my father’s death still felt like a ripping. He had a stroke, suddenly in the night, after being told the previous day that he was making a strong recovery. In crisis, sometimes you know exactly how many minutes you have before you fall apart. I knew I had five. I used those five minutes to call my professor and my boss to tell them I would not be making it to Sundance. Then I curled up in a ball on my tile floor and screamed and cried.

Didion points out that we often use the word “suddenly” when talking about death. Her husband suddenly died at the dinner table. My father suddenly had a stroke. She quite honestly, if brutally, points out that there is often nothing sudden about these sorts of events. Her husband has known about his heart problems for twenty-plus years. My father had been a diabetic since he was eighteen, and his kidneys had begun to fail when I was in high school. The use of “suddenly” is a blanket we, the survivors, wrap around ourselves because we wanted to believe all was well.

Over the years, I’ve learned that my preferred method with grief of any kind is a cultivated numbness. A bottling away of pain and a good, quiet presentation of a happy face. Reading The Year of Magical Thinking and writing this post have been breakthroughs of sorts into that cultivated numbness. It has been roughly a year and half. I am still grieving. And that is OK.

My father wasn’t perfect, nor was our relationship, but perfection has no place in death. In the past year and a half I have often felt haunted by my father. Not in the literal ghost sense, but in the sense of echoing memories. Every comic book movie, every mention of military history, every surviving trinket holds more weight because these were things he loved and his love of these things was passed on to me.

Things and places haunt us as readily as the idea of people. Joan Didion’s prose is in itself haunting and flows effortlessly from the factual to the poetic. This is a woman who has taken comfort in research and knowledge: she writes from the intersection  where information ceases to be a balm and grief demands its due.

She is often startled by objects and their inherent meaning. Woven throughout each memory and interaction is the familiar, surreal desire that perhaps John will return. As if he were merely lost instead of a loss.

Didion’s use of repetition carries an ethereal element and a sense of numbness that resonated with me.  Lines of verse intermingle with memories and medical definitions that give the memoir a dream-like quality. Here was someone that understood.

There are certain books that should be doled out at various moments in a person’s life. Because some books need to be read. For me, I believe girls should be issued a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt when they hit junior high (gentlemen, you’ll have to let me know if there is a male equivalent). And now I believe The Year of Magical Thinking ought to be delivered, wrapped  in plain brown paper, when a loved one has died with instructions not to read it until at least a year has passed.

Because sometimes you need that year to be in denial, to grieve, to mourn, or whatever it is that you do in order to gain perspective.

Any one punctured by grief will find a kind of catharsis or at least a kindred spirit in Didion. As you read it your own grief, your own stories will well up so that The Year of Magical Thinking becomes as much your story as it is Didion’s. To me, that’s the truly magical part of this piece.

It’s a short book at 227 pages, but it took me about two weeks to finish because I often needed to put it down and walk away. This book will hurt. But it helps.

I would highly recommend The Year of Magical Thinking to anyone who has struggled with loss. I give it 3.5 book bubbles.

Thank you for listening.