Monday, March 9, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking

In 2003, writer Joan Didion's husband died suddenly of a heart attack while sitting down for dinner. Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking detailing the year that followed his death. The book starts with the first words she wrote after her husbands death.

"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."

While grieving for the loss of her husband, Didion is also dealing with the critical illness of their only child who is in the ICU with pneumonia. They had, in fact, just come back from visiting her when John had the heart attack. Quintana's lengthy illness is a subplot throughout the book. While the illness definitely complicates Didion's grieving, it also seems to serve as a distraction. (Quintana died shortly after the book was published.)


Didion seems to describe every impulse and emotion of the first year of grief.

" ...Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."

She weaves memories of her life with John and Quintana together with her present day grief in a way that could have seemed choppy if done by a lesser writer. Didion's account flows very naturally as if we were reading straight out of her mind. It feels that honest as well.

She has a remarkable insight into her own thoughts and feelings, her magical thinking. Below, she describes the painful process of clearing out her husbands things.

"I stopped at the door to the room.
I could not give away the rest of his shoes.
I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.
The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.
I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power."

As I read Didion's book, I couldn't help but think that writing it must have been painful but also like therapy for her. A way to process through her thoughts and her grief. While some may come off as self-absorbed, writing a book entirely about ones grief experience, I think Didion comes off as generous for sharing something so personal with us. At the end, she doesn't offer any answers to her grief, no big bright light at the end of the tunnel, but sort of sums up her life with John.

"I think about swimming with him into the cave at Portuguese Bend, about the swell of clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be in the water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half dozen times at most during the two years we lived there but it is what I remember. Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that."

References: The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion. 2006.

2 Responses to “The Year of Magical Thinking”

lawgirl said...
March 10, 2009 at 7:00 AM

*such* a good book and well written. I wish that she would write a new edition with her grief journey updated since her daughter's death.


Amber Wollesen, MD said...
March 10, 2009 at 10:36 AM

Lawgirl, I agree. I found that I could not put this book down. I think she is one of the better modern writers I've experienced. The book has a lot of excellent quotes both from Didion herself and from other authors. I would love to read more of her story.