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.
So begins “The Year of Magical Thinking”, Joan Didion’s memoir of death and coping. With forthright honesty and candor Didion recounts her life the year after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. As the couple sat down to dinner one night, Dunne experienced a massive heart attack that killed him instantly.
Their marriage of forty years now over, Didion must face the silence of a house in which they both lived and worked. Compounding the difficulty of the situation, only weeks before Dunne’s death their only child, Quintana was admitted to an intensive care diagnosed with pneumonia. For some time after Dunne’s death, Didion lives in a state of shock.
Friends come and go; they seem to know the finest details of the tragic event, though Didion cannot remember telling them. In fact, as Didion writes her account, the sentences sometimes sound wooden as a person who has not gotten through her grief and who will not for some time.
Magical thinking is thinking things into reality, a sort of wishful thinking in which the wishes come true. Didion’s magical thinking allows every sound, every word, and every sentence to take on meaning. The words her husband wrote and words she is now writing become almost tangible and allow her to face tragedy as only a writer could.
As the story progresses, Didion recounts her history with Dunne, emphasizing not only the good things, but making a point to highlight the trials. This makes her story real and even those who have not experienced such a traumatic lost will empathize with Didion’s loneliness, anger, and grief. For her, remembering brings her husband and her life back to her while allowing her to process the present and begin to move forward.
Even as Didion bereaves her loss, the memoir does not delve into pity. There are moments of humor and hope as she promises herself, “I would not lead the rest of my life as a special case, a guest, someone who could not function on her own.”
While this is not Didion’s most elegant writing and some may get bogged down in the minutiae of details, anyone who has mourned can understand the want to pick apart everything to make sense of loss.
The conversational tone of this book makes it a great choice for an audio book. In lieu of the author’s own voice, Barbara Caruso’s is a good choice. She reads the memoir much as Didion might, unaffected and frank.