I have just finished reading this book for my book club. We should have plenty to talk about when we get together to discuss this surpassingly well-written examination of grief.
Joan Didion, acclaimed essayist, novelist and screenwriter, describes the first year of mourning and grief she experiences after her husband of forty years drops dead at the dinner table on December 30, 2003. The circumstances are made even more dreadful because her daughter is at that time in hospital in a coma suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. Joan cannot begin her grieving properly because she cannot tell Quintana of the death of her father until she wakes up in hospital some weeks later and the funeral cannot be held until Quintana can attend. Very soon another disaster strikes, when Quintana suffers an embolism as a result of her previous illness and for a time is again in a coma.
Didion employs several sorts of magical thinking in order to postpone grief and remain the “cool customer” she appeared to be to the social worker in the hospital. She needs to know the exact circumstances of her husband, John Gregory Dunne’s death, so that by thinking about what she could have done to save him, she might undo his death. She refuses to throw away John’s shoes, because that would be to admit the possibility that he won’t need them again. Didion uses her novelist’s research skills to find out everything known about the process of grieving, so that she can understand what she is experiencing; but this does not prevent her from realising that she is actually mad, and grief comes in waves to attack her. These waves are the occasion of reminiscences of her life with John and of Quintana’s childhood, which become a penetrating examination of the nature of marriage and of motherhood.
I recommend it to anyone who enjoys, good, spare prose, depictions of emotions that truly resonate though they are described without hyperbole, and honest and open personal memoirs. I would think twice about recommending The Year of Magical Thinking to anyone who is grieving. Though Didion recognizes that she is going through the well-documented stages of grief, this is not a hopeful book. It took me a while to realize why I was sad and slightly angry that week I was reading the book. I was feeling grief too, for all the people who must grieve; yet I made sure I finished the book.
Here is what some reviewers said:
“she chronicles a year of grief with her signature blend of intellectual rigor and deep feeling.” (Booklist starred review)
“Didion describes with compelling precision exactly how grief feels, and how it impairs rational thought and triggers “magical thinking.” The result is a remarkably lucid and ennobling anatomy of grief, matched by a penetrating tribute to marriage, motherhood, and love.” (Booklist)
“the predominant atmosphere is one of authentic suspense that makes for a remarkable page-turner. As always, Didion’s writing style is sheer and highly efficient.” (Library Journal)
“the book reverberates with passion and even, occasionally, ironic humor” (Book Page Reviews)
“As a poignant and ultimately doomed effort to deny reality through fiction, that magical thinking has much in common with the delusions Didion has chronicled in her several previous collections of essays. But perhaps because it is a work of such intense personal emotion, this memoir lacks the mordant bite of her earlier work.” (Kirkus)
“In a sense, all of Didion’s fiction, with its themes of loss and bereavement, served as preparation for the writing of this memoir, and there is occasionally a curious hint of repetition, despite the immediacy and intimacy of the subject matter. Still, this is an indispensable addition to Didion’s body of work and a lyrical, disciplined entry in the annals of mourning literature.” (PW Reviews)
Click here for some discussion questions for the book.