Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is quite the opposite of what I expected from the title. It details a year in her personal life, and what a year. After her only child, Quintana is hospitalized with the flu (which becomes pneumonia, which becomes septic shock), her husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, dies of cardiac arrest at their dining table, shortly after they had gone to visit Quintana in the hospital.
Throughout the book, Didion gives readers a glimpse into her head during this time; she elucidates her stages of grief and mourning. During the time she is writing, she is still trying to understand them herself, still trying to bring her husband back to life. Hence, her “magical thinking”. She is reluctant to give away his shoes and clothes, in case he should somehow return.
The intellectual Didion discovers that grief causes the mind to play tricks; she discovers how shallow sanity is.
After reading the jacket cover, I began the book expecting it to be pretty depressing. But Didion really did a beautiful job of trying to make sense of death and sudden misfortune while slipping back through the decades to certain poignant moments of the life she and her husband, and their daughter, shared together. Forty years is a long time to be married. I don’t know what that’s like, but Didion’s reminiscences underscore just how close you become to a person after 40 years, how much a part of her Dunne had become.
I was especially struck by how honest and open Didion is in her accounts. She really doesn’t hide behind anything; her mourning experience, simultaneously unique and standard, is raw and self-medicating.