The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion


Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 140004314X.
Reviewed by Janet Caplan
Posted on 11/28/2005

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

Joan Didion writes, "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 words aptly sum up The Year of Magical Thinking, a book written after the very sudden death of Didion's husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, in late December 2003. Having returned home from a hospital visit to their daughter who was lying in intensive care with pneumonia and septic shock, the couple had just sat down to dinner when Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died. What follows in Didion's memoir is her account of the year subsequent to her husband's death-the unfathomable grief at the loss of her partner of forty years coupled with the need to cope with her daughter's illness throughout much of that time. Didion's only child died in August 2005.

The 71-year-old Didion, a Californian living in New York since the late 1980s, has been writing novels and essays since the late 1950s. Among her many works are the novels Run River and Play It As It Lays and the essay collections, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album. The Year of Magical Thinking, recipient of the 2005 National Book Award for non-fiction, is her thirteenth and most personal work.

As personal as this book is, Didion never writes in anything but the clearest, cleanest sentences. Never over-dramatized or overblown, never wallowing in self-pity, the book is an examination of her grief and loss. Didion and her husband worked together at home for virtually all of their forty-year marriage, collaborating at times on screenplays and constantly checking back with one another. What ended with John's death was "the possibility of response. There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back."

While not wishing to belittle the health issues plaguing her daughter during Didion's first year of widowhood, it is the widowhood of which she writes that strikes a universal chord in this sad, powerful book. "We are equally incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other...Marriage is memory, marriage is time." For all of us living with or having lived with a longtime partner, Didion need say no more than those few words. The sadness at her loss is huge; her loss is palpable. It is difficult to imagine a more touching, poignant memoir, and from someone who is so evidently in charge of virtually all else in her life.

(See another review of this book, here)

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