Capsule Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Remember when I said my reading was rather earnest these days? This book was a case in point. My mother gave it to me in one of her book cleanouts. It's beautifully written, raw and real. I found it hard to put down, even though it was an intense read.

Didion's husband died of cardiac arrest at the dinner table, while their adult daughter was in the ICU battling a severe infection, which would lead to complications for a long time after. The book describes Didion's internal journey through that experience---the muddled thinking, the irrational hope that it might not be true, the painstaking avoidance of places or situations that would trigger memories of him. (Quintana later died as well, though that's beyond the scope of the book.)

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. It is a refrain echoed throughout the book. I was thinking about that line yesterday as I stood in the doorway of our house while it shook. Not because I was worried or afraid, but because it gave me occasion to muse: This is how it happens sometimes. In an instant. Didion's husband, John Dunne, died the way my father did. Sudden cardiac arrest. In both cases, help came quickly, but not quickly enough.

After the earthquake, I made a silly comment on Facebook about preferring the hurricane, lumbering up the coastline, or the tornado, with its sirens and storm chasers with video cameras. It's not rational: hurricanes and tornadoes can be more deadly, I think, but it feels safer to know, and to prepare. Stock up provisions. No, the unhurried deathbed goodbye is better. I'm sure of it, like only a person whose worst loss was a sudden one can be sure.

This book would be vital for people who care for folks going through grief. It's a fascinating window onto the landscape of grief. However, I don't intend to recommend this book for people who are dealing with fresh grief. I suspect it would seem redundant to them, unilluminating except as a "not the only one" experience. Didion's position as a person of a certain socioeconomic status might also be grating for people who are not only dealing with the death of a loved one, but also the aftershocks of ongoing medical bills, the impact of the loss of the deceased's income, and the like. (There is never even a whiff of angst over the cost of Quintana's care, which must have been considerable.) On the other hand, Didion's story shows that personal tragedy does not discriminate.