The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

This is the first book I’ve read cover to cover in quite a while – with half a dozen half-read, moderately interesting books waiting patiently on my bedside table. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is one of those rare books you consume greedily within a couple of days.

Joan takes the reader on a journey through the grief of suddenly losing her husband and best friend John Dunne, and her disjointed thoughts that arise in the aftermath. “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.”

But I should clarify: this is not the story of a woman losing her marbles. Joan is a fiercely intelligent woman who is openly and honestly dissecting her inner most thoughts; as though she finds them interesting. It seems she’s writing mostly for herself, rather than for the reader. This leads to a beautifully authentic, inimitable book.

Over the year after John’s passing, Joan is assessing events that could have changed the final outcome, pondering moments she believes she did not appreciate what she had, as well as reflecting on happy moments. She is also trying to figure out what went wrong – at what point exactly did he die? Before or after the ambulance arrived? She even wonders if he had anticipated this; a note on his writing desk in faint pencil leads her to muse: “Why would he use a pencil that barely left a mark? When did he begin seeing himself as dead?”

Her thoughts while coming to terms with John’s death are interlaced with the events occurring with the couple’s daughter, Quintana. Both before and after John’s death Quintana is suffering an illness which leads to hospitalisation and being placed in a coma. In fact, the couple had just returned from visiting Quintana prior to John’s unexpected death at the dinner table.

Joan copes by controlling as much as she possibly can. She sources and absorbs medical texts and makes suggestions to the hospital staff regarding treatment of her daughter. “At some point I noticed that I was trying like a sheepdog to herd the doctors, pointing out edema to one intern, reminding another to obtain a urine culture to check out the blood in the Foley catheter line. These efforts did not endear me to the young men and women who made up the house staff . . . but they made me feel less helpless.”

Quintana doesn’t die during the course of this book and her death is therefore not mentioned, but I’ve read elsewhere that she passed two months prior to it being published. She was in her late 30s.

The Year of Magical thinking may sound like an upsetting book, but amazingly it is not a downer. This is due to Joan’s charming, self-reflective style of prose which left me with a fondness for her unusual personality, an appreciation of her openness, as well as a desire to not squander my own life or take anyone for granted. The uplifting feel of this book may not have been the case if Quintana had of died during the course.

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Some may feel Joan handles her husband’s death with too much self-reflection, which can sometimes be misconstrued as being self-absorbed. Although, I’d call it simple honesty, which is refreshingly beautiful. It’s a thought Joan herself ponders.

“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”.

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