The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 140004314X.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 03/13/2006

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Relationships; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

"Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity."

These four lines begin Joan Didion's extraordnary account of the year (2004) in which her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died, and her only daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, became critically ill. And, as these lines suggest, the primary themes she writes about deal with change...sudden, unpredictable change, and the question of self-pity.

It was the night of December 30, 2003, a night like any other, when Joan and John had decided to have dinner comfortably at home by the fire. She was busy mixing the salad. Seated at the table, John was speaking and suddenly stopped mid-sentence. His left hand was raised. Looking over at her husband, Joan assumed he was making a gesture of some sort until he slumped over a moment later. The worst of all possible scenarios penetrated her stunned mind—he had suffered a massive coronary stroke and was gone.

You sit down to dinner.
And then— as you know it ends.

Her daughter Quintana Roo was lying at that moment in a hospital intensive care unit, struggling with symptoms which had begun, seemingly, as the flu and developed inexplicably and catastrophically into pneumonia and septic shock.

I join the many who are in awe that even a writer as agile and accomplished as Joan Didion could find the words to convey her emotional earthquake, her shattered equilibrium, her unrelenting inner anguish. The magic of her year refers to her certainty that John will return, that she must not throw out his shoes since he will need them. That would indeed be magic. Yet how very understandable that she refused to grasp the sudden and totally unexpected finality of her husband's life. The author grapples with her memory of that period in her life and the years surrounding it. We also learn in this thorough telling that her childhood was spent in Sacramento, her wedding took place in a little mission church in San Juan Bautista, and that John and she lived for twenty-four years in Brentwood, California. The couple wrote many screenplays together and traveled all over the world on writing assignments and for pleasure. There was nothing that Joan Didion did not discuss with her husband. It was John who had one day urged that they return to New York, where they became respected members of the elite East Coast literati.

Her book combines factual details with introspective musings, though the former weighs in more heavily in my view. Ms. Didion is, after all, a journalist par excellence. This truth was never far from my consciousness as I read her detailed reports of medications, medical reports, the results of hospital tests, and more. Her interest in specific data, in information is boundless. She informs us of her firm belief that "Information is control." Perhaps this belief has been shaken from its moorings. In her compelling honesty, she admits to emotional aspects that perhaps she now sees in a different light...aspects which are different than informational content, aspects which cannot be measured or defined. She shares with us her husband's depression, that he believed his work to be worthless, and that he had a premonition of his death.

Repeatedly John had said, "When something happens to me..." She waved his words away, attributing his dour comments to the recurring moodiness of the typical writer. For quite some time, he had been dealing with enervating medical issues as well as a number of unsuccessful outpatient procedures that ultimately led to the implantation of a Medtronic Kappa 900 SR pacemaker. In various sections of the book, Ms. Didion ponders her dismissal of her husband's remarks. Had she paid him enough attention? Listened carefully enough? She questions how well we can feel what a person we love is feeling? How well can we really know one another? All issues that interest me profoundly as well. And yet her greater clarity in hindsight does not open her to blaming herself. She asks herself, as anyone might: What if she had done things differently... Ultimately, she reminds herself that her husband had inherited a bad heart, and that nothing could have prevented his death. "The collapse had been there all along, invisible, unsuspected."

The photograph on the back cover of the book was taken on the deck of their Malibu home in 1976. It shows Quintana Roo Dunne, John Gregory Dunne, and Joan Didion. I look at it frequently and notice that John leans over, close to his daughter, while Joan stands at a distance from both of them, looking beautiful, her expression inward and distracted. I cannot help but wonder what she is thinking as the picture is being taken. The possibility occurs to me that, as the consummate writer she is, the bridge connecting her to others is hampered by the very private world in which she lives.

The author's daughter died in 2005. I find The Year of Magical Thinking a marvel of personal courage. The recounting of her ineffable loss of the two most dear to her, the unsurmountable grief, and her willingness to grapple with the inevitable questions that come in unbidden would be too much for the average person or for the average writer. But she is, of course, neither one. I highly recommend this book in which Ms. Didion attempts to make sense of various long-held beliefs that have been turned topsy-turvy, in language that flows and reveals her pain and personal growth.

(See another review of this book, here)

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