Book review: The Year of Magical Thinking

19:51, Nov 07 2012

Spare a thought for Joan Didion - she who has seen more grief in her 77 years than most people do in their lives.

The Year of Magical Thinking, published in 2005, is essentially the self-told account of a widow grieving for her husband, John Dunne, after he drops dead unexpectedly in their apartment of a cardiac arrest. To make matters worse, Didion's daughter Quintana Roo was severely ill in hospital at the time, in a coma from which she would emerge fatherless.

Magical thinking is the belief that certain rituals, actions or beliefs can help avert an unwanted future event. The book is littered with references to the senseless sacraments indulged in by the bereaved - such as being unable to give away a dead person's shoes because they might need them when they return, or a mother barricading her son's messenger of death from the door, reasoning that if she is not told the news, then it will not be real. 

Didion's memoir is an unflinching look at raw grief, the way it comes in waves that would last for what felt like infinity. She quotes a 1944 study in which grieving is described as:

"Sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intense subjective distress described as tension or mental pain."

What makes this book all the more powerful is the disquieting knowledge, well covered in news media, that this was not to be Didion's final loss. Before The Year of Magical Thinking was published, she would suffer another devastating blow - the death of her beloved daughter, less than two years after that of her husband.


In a move that speaks volumes about the steeliness of her authorial determination, Didion declined to write another draft with an addendum speaking of Quintana's death. The book was about her husband and widowhood, and perhaps, in a way, this too was another form of magical thinking: the belief that she could somehow keep her daughter alive a little longer, even if only between the dead pages of a book.

"Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed. They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered on to the hood of the car. They live by symbols. They read meaning into the barrage of spam on the unused computer, the delete key that stops working, the imagined abandonment in the decision to replace it."

According to a New York Times book review, Didion, when asked by an insensitive reporter whether she would change her book to reflect her new state of being (not just widowed, but also without daughter), she uttered the sharp reply: "It's finished." One can't help but wonder if she was referring to the book, or her life.

Have you read any of Joan Didion's works before? Will you read The Year of Magical Thinking?

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