Joan Didion passed away in late December, 2021, which made the beginning of 2022 feel like the right time to read arguably her most famous book, The Year of Magical Thinking.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir on grief. On December 30, 2003, Didion and her husband, John Dunne, returned home from visiting their daughter, Quintana, in the hospital, where she was suffering from severe pneumonia. They fell into their usual evening pattern- starting the fire, making dinner- when John had a heart attack. Paramedics were called, they attempted to resuscitate him and were unsuccessful. Didion would return to her daughter’s bedside the next day but wouldn’t share John’s death with Quintana until a month later, once she had recovered. Two months after that (three months after John’s death), Quintana collapsed after a cross-country flight and died of a brain hematoma. In the span of a year, Didion lost both husband and daughter.
I’m making this all sound very abstract and clinical, as that is almost the way Didion writes about it. Like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the other work of hers that I’ve read, her style is consistent- lots of specificity, precise language choices and a sense of detachment from her subjects. That is an interesting approach to a memoir, and it does feel like she’s viewing herself from a distance- noting the irrational choices she makes and an unconscious inability to accept that her husband is gone.
This memoir really hit me at the time I read it, and I am not currently living through a loss, so I can only imagine what it would feel like to someone who is. I think the timing was right in part because I read it in January, which was a) the month where Didion would have been grieving, and b) a cold, post-holidays slump of a month given to introspection. It was the small details in Didion’s memoir that really made me start to tear up- Didion thinking of what to bring John in the hospital, cleaning up the apartment the next day, saving stories and pieces of information that she needed to share with John. It was the idea that your best friend and life partner, the person you share all of these important and trivial things can (and will, unless you die first) someday just be gone. I was reminded of why the telephone to nowhere/ the wind phone in Japan exists- so that all of those people who suddenly lost loved ones in the Fukushima tsunami had a way to say all those thoughts that had built up. Just because someone we love is gone doesn’t mean we’re ready for them to be gone; we have so much left to say.
The GoodReads reviews seem fairly polarized, and the most common complaint is Didion’s name dropping (she didn’t stay at a hotel, she stayed at the Beverly Wiltshire, etc.). I think the critique is accurate but it didn’t bother me because a) that specificity is something Didion uses throughout her work, and b) I think you have to approach Didion’s work knowing that she lives a privileged life and accepting that for what it is (it isn’t a self-help guide, it’s a memoir). [One of the reviews criticized Didion for making her loss too specifically about her husband, so it wasn’t as enjoyable/useful to the reviewer as it would have been had Didion written about a more generic loss of a spouse- I found this such a weird criticism as a) again, it’s a memoir not a self-help guide; and b) every spouse will be specific, and I think its through those specificities that we can all generalize- John has x quirks which reminds you that your spouse has y quirks? But maybe that’s just me…]
Loss comes for us all, so I’m sure I’ll have cause to pick this one up again, although I really dread that day. Glad I got a preview while still in the salad days so I’m not as gutted the next time.
Counting this one as the ‘Heart’ square for cbr14bingo- John Dunne’s heart gave out, leading to heartache for Didion and some heart-wrenching reading for the rest of us.