Customer Reviews: The Year of Magical Thinking
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon October 6, 2005
I stayed up almost all might just to finish reading it, unable to put this down, although I confess I had to keep a box of tissues nearby. I've lost 5 people in the last few years and, just recently, another friend and so I related very strongly to this book.

Didion's unflinching account of the sudden loss of her husband (which occurred while their only child was in a coma in a hospital (!)) deserves to be a classic in the genre of books written by and for those who are grieving. It is hard to find books like this, which are both honest but not overly sentimental, not resorting to the tropes which seem to surround death. She doesn't offer vague platitudes or advice. She simply relates her very personal experience, including the inevitable vulnerability, unexpected moments of being blindsided by memories and sudden tears, etc.

She covers all the bases, including the kind of insanity that can seize one in the throes of grief, those moments when you forget the person is actually dead, when you turn to speak to him or her as you normally would at a certain part of the day or reach for the phone to share the latest news.

The book is raw. If you're looking for religous or spiritual guidance and inspiration, this is not the book for you. As Didion herself noted, writing about the book recently, it was intentionally written "raw". I assume she didn't want to wait, to distance herself from the intensity of the experience as she wrote it down, quite unlike many other books she has written. Raw or not, it wasn't sloppy, overly sentimental or complete despairing.

It was simply honest, heartwrenchingly so, and Didion doesn't deviate from communicating, in absolute striking detail, the sense of alienation and disorientation that separates mourners from those who seem to be living "normal" lives. Grief is its own territory, separate from so-called normalcy. In so many ways, it is an illness, an affliction of the spirit and not one that can be cured in any one way.

An aside- the photo of Didion inside the dustjacket is haunting. No question that those are the eyes of someone who has been scraped to the core, wounded and, presumably, still recovering. There is something beautiful in that portrait and, oddly, comforting. It is the face of a survivor, however hard it might be to live as one.

This book will remain on my bookshelf and I expect I'll be thumbing through it for solace time and again. Reading it was both painful and cathartic and strangely comforting, with an intensity that left me awestruck. I am still amazed that she was able to produce such a beautifully written book in the throes of so much pain.
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on November 14, 2005
I'm not 100% sure why I bought this book. Certainly, the extremely generous reviews were a big push, as much as the fact that I recognize that Joan Didion is a superb writer. Maybe more than that, because I lost my mother and my grandmother within a very short span of time, and they lost their brother/son, then father/husband, in an even briefer time period. For awhile, "Magical Thinking" enthralled me with Didion's honesty and brutal detail. It even gave me nightmares, which I'm sure was not the author's intention, but that's how effective the writing is.

Part of Joan Didion's truthfulness is in dealing with her own avoidance of grief, and the extent to which an extremely intelligent, ever-thinking person will go to escape facing pain. But halfway through this short book, only 105 pages from the end, I almost gave it up, and I'm not sure I'm glad that I didn't. The endless facts, medical explanations, and most of all, Joan's continuous detachment from any emotion, left me feeling beat up and worn down. Yes, it even annoyed me a little. I give her all the credit in the world for approaching her task. Her love for her husband and daughter is extraordinarily apparent by the picture she paints of them, but she still comes through as only an observer. "The Year of Magical Thinking" is written in the first person, but not for a split second do we get a glimpse of any sensitivity coming from her. She only looks, thinks, and writes. But who is Joan, and what is going on inside her? Anything at all??

Buddhists have a valuable outlook on death. They meditate on it regularly, often among the bodies of the departed. Not viewed as morbid or surprising, death informs them how to appreciate life. In the West, we are always stunned by death, and instead of being always ready to accept it, by being kind to one another, knowing how quickly and unexpectedly a lifetime ends, we spend all our energy denying its existence, even after we've lost someone we love. And now we have a bestseller that tells all, except that it's normal and right to feel the pain.

Whatever else this book might be, it is definitely NOT a thesis on how best to deal with death and tragedy. And despite all the praise, "Magical Thinking" will not be everyone's cup of tea.
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"Grief is a multi-faceted response to loss. Although conventionaly focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has a physical, cognitive, behavioural, social and philosophical dimensions." Wikipedia

Joan Didion starts her book:
"Life changes fast
Life changes in an instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

On December 30, 2003 Joan and her husband, John Gregory Dunne were just sitting down to dinner about 9pm. They had returned from visiting their daughter, Quintana, who was comatose in an ICU in New York City. They were having a conversation as Joan put dinner on the table. She looked up, it was very quiet, John was not responding. He was slumped over the table with his hand raised. She realized all was not well, and in that instant her life changed. An ambulance was called; the trip to the Emergency Department, the meeting with the doctor, massive heart attack mentioned, and she knew her husband was dead. She returned home alone, did a few chores and went to bed and slept soundly. She awakened and realized something was wrong, and her first taste of grief descended.

Joan Didion has written a devastating story of her first year after the death of her husband, and the grief that enveloped her. She writes as she thought, and the story is laid out in detail as it happened and in her own words. She has friends and family but John isn't there. She talked to him every day for the forty years they were married. They talked constantly and were with each other all the time. Even though conventional wisdom has it that absence makes the heart grow fonder. She remembers thinking "there is no one to hear the news, no where to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back". Life changes in an instant. There is no place on earth to go where there is no memory. She kept expecting him to come back. She couldn't get rid of his shoes, because he needed shoes to come back. She knew this thought was irrational, but it kept her going.

She kept busy helping her daughter and son-in-law put their life back together, and then it comes apart when Quintana becomes ill again. There is much to do, much to read about Quintana's illness, much to discuss with the hospital staff that look at her strangely when she discusses edema and too much "fluid overload". She immerses herself in the language of medicine, and it keeps her busy for a while. She tried new projects, nothing really works except time, but she still keeps expecting John to come home. He never does. She remembers all the little things he said about his life. He told her they had to go to Paris that November because he might never have the chance again. He was right. He was frequently right. And, oh, she misses him, she always will. Magnificent story of the year in the life of grief. Highly recommended. prisrob
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on May 27, 2007
The Year of Magical Thinking a Play by Joan Didion is based on her memoir. This play gives you a voyeuristic journey inside a woman's grief. Ms. Didion, a noted author and playwright lost her husband in 2003. Within a short period of time, less than two years later, she would also lose her daughter. That kind of loss is unimaginable to most people. We all have experiences with losing loved-ones, but rarely two in such a short span of time. Ms. Didion's prose is written quite sparely and almost from a distance but it is no less wrenching. She appears to view her pain from a distance while feeling the full impact of it.

The play starts out with this passage; This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That's what I am here to tell you. I felt those words down in my very being. Though the words were simple, they were poignant, heartfelt and oh so true. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will feel the impact of her prose.

After her husband John Dunne passes, Joan appears to be in a state of suspended expectation. The most difficult thing for her to accept is that he is not coming home. In fact for many weeks she expects him to return. It's sad to read how hard it is to accept her lost.

Shortly thereafter when her daughter becomes ill, she has something else to be concerned with. She immerses herself in research about her daughter's illness to try to fill the void in her life. It is wrenching yet dispassionate in so many ways reading about her daughter's illness and ultimate demise. Ms. Didion has exposed her love and pain in an amazing way.

In sixty-two pages this play takes us through a roller coaster of feelings. What impacted me so was how the words were never overwrought, but so strongly felt. I loved the way she evaluated the relationship she had with both her husband and her daughter. The simple what-if-onlys. The Year of Magical Thinking allowed me to realize there is no set way to grieve and that we all react differently. I recommend this play and the aforementioned memoir to Joan Didion fans and to anyone who has experienced the loss of a loved one.
Angelia Menchan
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon February 14, 2006
A memoir is a very personal thing and I hesitate to criticize so I will tread lightly. Joan Didion has suffered and appears to have written her story while still in shock. It is flat, too cerebral to elicit any emotion from the reader. I know grief manifests uniquely in each one of us and there is no right way or wrong way to go through the process, but I wonder why there is very little positive written about the subject of the book? Joan Didion's memories of John are harsh, not many compliments scattered about. No talk of love, just need. The year was her process and her feelings but everything so revolved around her that the others were just lost. You don't close the last page with feelings of loss because you never really got to know the characters. There wasn't any depth and Ms. Didion earns the hospital's description of a "cool customer."

We learn of all the horrors of Quintana's illness, go through the day to day, the technical and medical but then it just drops off without a note of conclusion. We learn what Joan consistently eats for breakfast and her inability to stay in a certain hotel which holds strong memories but she abandons us as far as Quintana's recovery is concerned. She drops off at the Rusk Institute and never returns. '"The Year of Magical Thinking" focuses on the bad, the tragedy, death, her emptiness, and then it ends. We learn through the interviews given on the book tour of Quintana's passing about a year after the book was written but when "A Year of Magical Thinking" ends, no mention of Quintana at all. I felt cheated somehow, wanting to hear of some news, some recollection, closure but the reader is denied.

Many of us recall the most pleasant memories when a loved one dies, usually to the detriment of the truth. Joan Didion seems to focus more on John's character flaws as a way of dealing with her loss. He comes across as down right cold at times and maybe just a little bit nasty. I kept with this until the end but after finishing, wish I hadn't.
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on November 24, 2005
I have always admired the clear, precise, detail-observant way in which Joan Didion has crafted her essays. She has a way of writing that suggests a trauma victim's detatched self hovering above her own body, carefully noting her own sense of bewilderment (or amusement) over what has befallen her. This is true whether she is writing about broad social phenomena as in SLOUCHING TOWARD JERUSALEM or THE WHITE ALBUM, or about more deeply personal events as her husband's death (and her daughter's near death) which she addresses in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. This last effort just earned her the National Book Award for non-fiction, a well-deserved honor. It is perhaps this clinical detatchment that prompted the hospital social worker to assure the emergency room doctor that Didion would not break down and require sedation when given the news of her husband's death. "It's okay," he says. "She's a pretty cool customer." What follows for the next two hundred pages is both an affirmation and denial of that assessment.

Didion and husband John Gregory Dunne were married for almost forty years when Dunne died of a heart attack at home. In many ways their marriage was unique. Both were successful writers. And since they both wrote mostly from their home, they were together almost twenty-four hours a day, every day. They not only finished one another's sentences, they edited them as well. But it is Didion's ability to observe herself--her thoughts, her memories, her odd changes in behavior--that make her account of the year following Dunne's death so universal. And her honest and humble way of dissecting her feelings are what makes MAGICAL THINKING such a helpful book for anyone who has experienced the loss of someone dear to them. More so, I suspect, than any self-help book on grieving is likely to do. MAGICAL THINKING is likely to be a classic of the "loss memoir" genre on the level of C.S. Lewis's A GRIEF OBSERVED. I know I'll be recommending it to friends for years to come.
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on November 29, 2005
I've never read a thing by Joan Didion, but have read pieces by John Gregory Dunne in the New York Review of Books. They were lively and insightful. I read his last book review about Natalie Wood, the one he thought was "worthless." In approaching Didion's other books, I have felt a heaviness, as if there was nothing inspiring there, just journalistic descriptions of a reality I know too well and want either to be elevated or to be escaped from. But who in their right mind would knock someone's telling of grief and mourning? Not Emily Post, not Delmare Schwartz, not William Shakespeare, not Gerard Manley Hopkins, not C.S. Lewis (all quoted here), and certainly, not me. Ms. Didion spent over forty years with her husband, and so his sudden, unannounced departure certainly made a muddle of her, in spite of her awful rational mind that keeps wanting to deny, to bring John back, and to travel the well-worn paths they traveled for so long together. And how many others of us have felt this same betrayal of our minds and emotions? Those who break up with lovers, those whose sons are dying in Iraq, those who watch a husband or wife waste away in a hospital bed from an incurable illness, those whose children predecease them. Although she chronicles the trickery and failures of her mind and emotions as she lives through the year after John's death, Didion feels her way along with her intellect. In spite of herself, she is an "intellectual," a "cool customer," and as such, we will not be witnessing plate throwing, acting out, or irrational outbursts at friends. No. Instead, Didion becomes confused and obscure, although she does admit to screaming from time to time. We are given obsessive descriptions of her train of thought and of medical procedures, and of the event itself, which, from an outsider's perspective, can be tiresome, but what the hell, it's Joan's book, it's her grief, it's her life, and I chose to enter it by picking this book up and reading it.

As for you who contemplate doing the same, you will find brilliant bits of poetry and prose ("Full fathom five thy father lies/Those are pearls that were his eyes," from The Tempest) and also a long passage from Emily Post on the proper way to handle those in mourning. You will find obsessive descriptions of medical conditions and procedures. You will find a literary woman trying to control the reality of her daughter's grave illness and her husband's death. There is no resolution. There is only this reality. There is only this heaviness. And this is what I feel after having turned the last page.
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Presumably, people will come to this book for one of three reasons: (A) They are looking for insight into grief and the process of mourning. (B) They are Joan Didion fans. (C) They've read one of the glowing reviews, or otherwise heard the "buzz" about this National Book Award winner. Addressing these in reverse order: (C) the "buzz" strikes me as literati rewarding one of their own for subpar performance. (B) I've never read Didion, but I have to believe she's capable of much better than this. (A) there's nothing to be learned here about grief -- which may be the point. At one point Didion writes that the grief of losing a loved one is by its very nature, unknowable. In keeping with this pronouncement, the reader will learn little about grief other than it is a vast void or emptiness and meaninglessness that can make one literally insane.

As if to prove this last point, Didion writes about losing her husband of forty years to a sudden heart attack as they are sitting down to dinner in about as distanced and unconnected a manner as possible. It's almost as if she set out to write the anti-grief memoir, because she doesn't portray herself as a particularly empathetic person. Which is fine, I'm not looking for warm fuzzies or solace, just a little coherence. And unfortunately, it's in very short supply -- the book reads like the scattered thoughts of a journal, and perhaps that the stage it should have been left at. But by allowing its publication, Didion achieves the formidable task of portraying herself as a woman who has lost both husband and daughter, and yet is totally unsympathetic.

Aside from the content, which is a mix of medical reportage, quoting from studies on grief, ruminations on her past, snippets of poetry and prose, the book is marred by a very problematic tone. There's a very distinct elitist thread running throughout the book, and it's hard to understand why Didion would have written it that way. Her reflections on her married life contain innumerable references to a highly privileged lifestyle (staying for weeks at the Beverly Wiltshire, flying from LA to SF for dinner, buying clothes at fancy boutiques, eating at the toniest restaurants, homemade dinners with the literati, etc.). On top of this, in detailing her struggle to understand her husband's death and daughter's coma, she alludes to her special access to doctors, private jets, clinics, etc. beyond the means of "regular" folks. It's hard to imagine that "regular" Didion wouldn't recognize the impression she was creating, but since the book was written and published whilst still in deep grief, perhaps she didn't.

Yes, it's sad that she lost her husband and collaborator, but there's something very distancing in her account of it all. And it's hard not to feel slightly manipulated when a good way into the book you learn that her husband had a history of heart trouble and wore a pacemaker, making his coronary somewhat less dramatic than her telling of it. Even more telling is the deliberate omission of his age anywhere in the book -- 71. Since it's not exactly shocking for someone of that age and medical background to drop dead, these kinds of decisions have the appearance of being made in order to foster more sympathy for Didion. Yet another problematic area relates to her daughter's case, which is treated in great detail throughout and simply vanishes at the end of the book. Her daughter died while the book was still in production and according to reports, Didion chose not to make any revisions to reflect this.

No doubt I am being churlish to some degree for criticizing Didion's portrayal of her experience. It's her life, her tragedy, and she certainly has every right to represent it however she would like to. However, placing it in the commercial realm makes it subject to comment, and my own feeling is that its simply not a very good book. That said, there are glimpses here and there of sharp writing and analysis which makes me think I might like one of her past collections of essays. Still, I can't imagine anyone going through the loss of a loved one would find this book helpful or illuminating in any way.
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on February 28, 2006
I purchased this book at the airport on the way to see my father as he lay dying and read most of it on the plane. One of the things I thought which others have pointed out is that the book is curiously distanced from these major life events. Didion is the writer/observer. The mental note taker. Another strong feeling was that this was the first time I had felt completely a sense of sadness and compassion for the wealthy and could see how this kind of disposable income could have such a limiting affect on life. The world she and her husband occupied seemed so marvelous, so intriguing, so much fun so. . . literary. Dashing off to foreign countries or if financial problems struck, just getting a hotel room in Hawaii so something would resolve itself in their absence and money arrive. If things were not going well at any time, one could always go out to lunch! She says at the beginning of the book that THERE IS NO EYE ON THE SPARROW and she concludes the book with this repeated. This was so much sadder than what happened, than the loss of her husband. She explains how superficial this kind of life was; how mental and disconnected from the emotional or spiritual it was. How she could avoid facing almost anything. She says that at one point John mentions a couple that volunteered as some kind of aid workers in Thailand and he says: maybe our lives were thrown away, perhaps there is something to being of service. And Joan considers the word 'waste' in a crossword puzzle and then turns to something else. The sad thing about this book is that their entire lives were about magical thinking not just her year of bereavement. She not only didn't grow old seeing herself in his eyes but didn't appear to grow up either. They learned nothing except how to dress and eat well. And she learned very little even from this great trauma. Her husband's death seems sudden in spite of his pacemaker and heart condition and medications because the idea of death doesn't fit into this kind of life (so no need to think of it) and neither does a great deal of living. This was heartwrenching indeed and made me think of the saying, "the unexamined life isn't worth living" and the response "Yes, but the unlived life isn't worth examining either." This seems lacking in compassion for her real suffering, for another person's pain, but because she is a prominent writer she could pen this memoir and receive great acclaim stating that previously she had distanced herself with polished prose, but here would be open and honest. And she was. So hard to see that she was being honest about understanding so little about life or death or the eye that is on the sparrow. I longed for a memoir written by someone who was actually present in her life and could tell us more about what that is like than vicariously experiencing a lifelong absenteeism and magical thinking.

My father died three days later and it proved to be one of the most blessed and inspiring experiences of my life. Fortunately, he was at home and as my mother and I sat with him in those final moments and he told her again that he loved her, what peace, what joy, what a glimpse of the heaven that awaits us all in the hereafter opened up to us. The truth of the profound love at the heart of life and death was revealed to us-- and that divine eye that indeed is watching the sparrow. I wish someone would write about that!
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VINE VOICEon December 1, 2005
If you read this book and have not yet experienced Death coming to claim someone you love, then this book will be an entertaining, interesting read. Didion is, after all, an accomplished writer who knows the power of the right word, the perfectly placed dash. You may like it so much you recommend it to friends and lend it to them. On the other hand, if you have stood at a grave and wondered how you will keep yourself from jumping into it, if you have rushed home from a great restaurant to tell your Beloved all about the food and found the house empty and quiet and the Beloved long gone, this book will be not so much an entertainment as a general memorial to what we all go through when IT happens. Didion's chewing in her mind on the moment of her husband's death, trying to make rational sense of it all by quoting Freud and Neuland, realizing the powerful pull of habit in talking to a person who will never again listen all can remind you of your own repetitive ponderings on the Moment, the desperate search for Knowledge so you could understand what Happened. This book has much the same feel to me as DeBotton's book, On Love. The pace is gentle, the words perfect, and the feeling of recognition with each admission of weakness, terror, rage, and grief comes easily to the reader.
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