The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (audio)

I said I was laying off the audiobooks, because my present life & schedule don’t allow for enough listening time. But then I picked up another, and another. Among other things, I’ve hurt my knee again and am back in the gym. But you’re not here to hear about my knee.

year of magical thinkingI’m so glad I tuned into The Year of Magical Thinking. It’s not a feel-good story: it tracks the year in Joan Didion’s life following her husband’s death, and maps her experience with grief. It’s almost New Year’s, and Joan and husband John have been visiting their daughter in the hospital, where she is unconscious with a life-threatening case of pneumonia and septic shock. On December 30, 2003, he collapses at the dinner table, is rushed to the hospital and pronounced dead that night. John is John Gregory Dunne, also an accomplished writer, and their lifestyle has always kept them very close: working from home, together, consulting on every aspect of their lives, from work, food, family and world events to the most insignificant details. Didion is of course, obviously, shocked and unmoored. During the year that follows she experiences different types of grief, shock and bafflement. This book is a little like a diary of that time, which it charts chronologically, ending one year and one day after John’s death.

Along the way, she nimbly weaves in the research she performs on related subjects within psychology, medicine and anthropology: research on grief, on cultural relationships with death and dying, and on medical issues, as she tries to understand when, how and why John died. This last is a surprisingly opaque question, covering the time between his collapse and the doctor’s pronouncement about an hour and a half later. What had been done in the interim? What could have been done? She examines the reports of the ambulance team, the nurses and the ER doctor.

And to compound the complicated and tragic story, daughter Quintana spends most of this year in and out of hospitals, near death on multiple occasions. What we know, although Didion at the time of writing does not, is that Quintana died within the year after the book’s timeline closes. Her later memoir, Blue Nights, covers that personal loss. I haven’t read that one – yet.

The difficulty of this book, then, is obvious: it is filled with sad stuff. Didion is a deft and clever writer, though. We see more than a little joy, although much of it is remembered. We see a strong family, and we see good times. The entwining of personal experience (past and present) and research is beautifully done. Didion uses repeated phrases to draw her reader along the book’s line, to tie everything together. It’s a lovely piece of work, although I did have to turn away when I had a particularly bad day. The subject matter is what it is.

My one criticism is that Didion fails to recognize and acknowledge a certain privilege: that her life is set against the Ritz, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, the fancy home in Malibu, Chanel, Brooks Brothers, an endless parade of the food, clothing, and scenery of her choice and at her command. This privilege, compounded by her failure to acknowledge it (is it possible she is unaware?), distanced me from her. She is both a fine writer and a complex and sympathetic person; it is my instinct to identify with her, and that is where this memoir shines; but that effect is lessened by her experience of the world to which she is apparently blind. Near the end, she describes a difficulty early in her marriage, when she and John had made a $50,000 down payment on a house in an L.A. suburb but hadn’t yet sold their home in Malibu: where would the money come from? They go to a luxury resort in Hawaii to think it out, then find that the Malibu home has an acceptable offer. She does speak briefly to the irony of the Hawaiian brainstorming session. We could call this a partial exception to my complaint. The episode still comes off a little tone-deaf, though.

This is a fairly small criticism. Because of this privileged position, Didion lost a few degrees of identification with her reader. On the whole, though, she is a sympathetic and fully realized character. Her story is shocking but true; it is beautifully structured and well written, and I will definitely read more Didion.

Barbara Caruso’s narration felt spot-on to me.

Rating: 7 leis.

2 Responses

  1. […] Truth,” I read excerpts from Rachel Hadas’s Strange Relation, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. I felt […]

  2. […] grieving process, descriptive rather than prescriptive. It reminds me strongly of Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which also conjures the muddy, dreamy, drugged madness of grief. But I felt far closer to […]

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