“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

Joan Didion book cover“You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

This book has simple sentences like this scattered through it. They’re things you know, but forget. Your loved ones will die, so make the most of the time you have. I suppose I don’t like to look at members of my family and think about them dying, so I push the thought away. Reading this book, I was unable to push anything away. I will die one day, and so will everyone I know. A simple thought, and not necessarily a depressing one if instead of getting immobilised by preemptive grief I decide to take action, to show people that I love and appreciate them, to call them more, to spend more time with them, to forget the little grudges and niggles that really don’t matter.

Joan Didion’s loss is twofold – first her daughter goes into intensive care on Christmas morning, and then just before New Year’s Eve her husband dies instantly of a massive heart attack. The book explores the process of grieving, which starts with numbness, and moves through denial and magical thinking (imagining John is still alive, and that she can’t throw out his shoes because he’ll need them when he comes back). Only later does she really start to understand that he’s dead and to grieve for him.

The book is full of beautiful sentences and painful observations. She avoids places she went with John, but finds even the loosest connections taking her back down into the vortex, thinking of him and their times together and being unable to function in the real world. The narrative flits back and forth between past and present just as her thoughts must have done throughout that year.

And then, at the end, she realises that a year has passed. Until now she has kept time by looking back to what she was doing with John the year before, but now for the first time she realises that her memory of that day a year ago is a memory that doesn’t involve John. She is scared of going on into the next year, of summer coming, of her memory of John becoming less immediate, less raw. She feels it is a betrayal, to let him go like that, to become just a memory. She doesn’t want to “move on” as she is supposed to – she wants to keep John with her.

There were so many other parts of this book that I liked. The writing is quite restrained – she doesn’t try to play it up or describe herself bawling and tearing her hair out. It’s a quiet kind of grief, but a powerful one. I got a real sense of her love and intimacy with her husband, and how painful it was to let him go.  I can see myself reading this again in a little while, just to remind myself of the truths I prefer to forget.

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There are 11 comments

  1. I have this one at home too.

    It’s been sitting on the shelf for a while because I also want to push aside the idea that I will die one day and the people I love too.
    You’re right to say we should look at that thought face to face sometimes, just to remember what’s important.

    Your review makes me want to read it now.

  2. Wonderful review, Andrew! I read ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ last year and loved it. It made me cry. I read it after reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and so it was a cry-fest for me. I still remember Didion’s description that grief hit her like waves – I can relate to it so much. Did you notice something interesting in the cover picture that you have posted – especially the different colours of the letters in the title?

  3. This sounds like an amazing book. I love books that make us think and face the real things in life. I will have to put this book on my TBR list.

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    I know what you mean, Emma – it is very uncomfortable to think about the death of people you love, but I did find that it made me appreciate them all the more.

    Thanks for the link, Caroline – nice article. I particularly liked the advice to picture your own death on a daily basis. That is such a taboo in the West, where you’d be called morbid for doing something like that, but I can really see the logic of it. I think I’ll read that Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

    Hi Vishy! Glad you loved it too. Yes, there were lots of descriptions like that, things that really resonated. It was the first book I’ve read by Joan Didion, although I’ve read a lot of her essays in the New Yorker, and I think I will read a lot more of her stuff now. It’s funny, I didn’t even notice the letters spelling John! I am so unobservant sometimes for a writer 🙂 Thanks for pointing it out!

    Hi Celawerd, to me you have hit on the main reason for reading. I know a lot of people read in order to escape from life, but personally I love books that make you face reality and maybe see it in a new way. Sometimes it can be more difficult to do that, but I often find it’s ultimately more rewarding than just trying to close my eyes and escape.

  5. This is such a good book to give to people who have lost loved ones. There is so little you can do for someone who is mourning, so I find it a huge relief to be able to give them Didion and say, when you can face it, read this, and you will at least have the pleasure of knowing perfectly expressed solidarity. And that’s quite something. Lovely review.

  6. Glad you liked the review! You’re right, it’s so hard to know what to do or say in the face of such a huge loss. I love your idea of giving people this book. “Perfectly expressed solidarity” would give some comfort, I’m sure. I think it’s a book I would turn to in that position, at least as soon as I felt able to turn to anything.

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