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The Year of Magical Thinking
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45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 3, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I picked this book up simply because my online book club is reading it. It is an insight in the first year of grieving ~~ a wife's perspective as she struggles to get through the first year. It is not a "Woe is Me" type book ~~ it is a book of a writer struggling to put her thoughts and insights into words so others can relate. It is simply a way for her to express her grief in the only way she knows how.

I have not lost my husband but I have lost several people over the years that are very close to me and I recognize myself among those pages ~~ especially when Didion couldn't even go past some of the places that she lived with her husband and daughter as it was just too hard to bear. The author struggles to understand what has happened to her ~~ and to her daughter. As her daughter lays there fighting for her life, Didion struggles to understand what death is about. It is not just death, it is a life without her partner that she had spent forty years of marriage with. It is about seeing something that the two of them share a private joke and she turns to him only to realize that he's not there. One minute he was there and the next, he was gone.

Several of the reviewers have mentioned that this is not a personal and intimate look at grief. They don't feel as if they know her husband (a famous writer) at all. I think they missed the point ~~ she wasn't writing about her husband. She was writing about that first year of trying to survive life without her husband. It is a profound look at life when something tragic happens, when one minute, he's here and the next, he's gone. This is about shock. This is about self-pity. This is about life that is no longer the same. This is about trying to get up the next day and the next day and the days after that. It is about trying to make sense of what has happened.

If you try to find enlightenment in this book, you will be disappointed. She has no answers. She offers no solutions. She just writes as a widow, a writer, a woman who have suffered severe blows in her personal life. She writes of a dark and gloomy first year without her husband. She writes impersonally in some places and in others, her grief shines raw and strong through the cold words.

She's been there and is there ~~ and this book is great for anyone who wants to feel less alone after someone they love have died. This book is hard to read. This book is depressing. But she understands the language of loss. It is probably the hardest book for me to read especially over a holiday weekend, but I am glad that it's here on my bookshelf.

9-3-06
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I liked the way Joan Didion let her mind flow into the stages of grief as she wrote this book. You could tell while she wrote it - how her mind was reacting during her process. If anyone has lost anyone suddenly to death (or not even suddenly), you become obsessed with the little things. I found her reading and printing the Emily Post section on how deal with who is grieiving very symbolic. I finished reading this right at the time my best friend's mom had died, and I was looking at the Emily Post section thinking - how cold. Anyway, the book itself was so honest. The not wanting to throw away her husbands shoes, because he might need them. Even reading chapters out of "how we die". She needed to know every little detail of his death. Her "aloneness". Her daughters illness. How does one endure all that? You just do. I would recommend this book to anyone who has grieved over a loved one and wants to know there is someone out there just like them. Or to anyone who just wants to read an honest story about love.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Into the unremarkable routines of our lives explodes the unthinkable, the incomprehensible. At nine o'clock one evening Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne sat down to dinner in the living room of their New York City apartment. They had just returned from the hospital where they had visited their only child Quintana, who five days earlier was admitted to the hospital for septic shock and was put on life support after an induced coma. John talked about World War One. He asked Joan for a second drink of Scotch. He then raised his left hand and slumped over dead from a massive heart attack. A few days later at her computer Didion wrote,

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The Year of Magical Thinking, writes Didion, "is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."

As writers Didion and Dunne had worked at home together almost every day during forty years of marriage. In the space of a few seconds all that ended. By "magical thinking" Didion means the paroxysms of disbelief, denial, and derangement that expressed themselves in any number of irrationalities in the months that followed John's abrupt death. She tried to reconstruct a time line of events. She read medical and psychological literature to understand death itself and her grieving process. She describes her efforts to "bring him back," and her feelings of isolation, rage, helplessness, vulnerability, and self-pity. After a year (when she started to write this book), she says, the craziness ended, but neither clarity nor resolution followed. She discovered that she did not believe the creeds she learned growing up in the Episcopal church, or in the resurrection of the dead. Nor had John. In the last four sentences of the book, Didion compares her experience to memories of swimming in the ocean. "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." The New York Times identified Didion's book as one of the five most notable books of non-fiction for 2005, and no doubt it will take its place alongside other classics on bereavement such as A Grief Observed by CS Lewis.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Though not written in real-time, it may as well have been. The writing was done close enough to the event(s) that there might not have been perspective on what Didion was going through w/her husband's death and daughter's illness. BUT - that is somewhat the point: At the time of grief, there is no perspective. She wrote what she was going through *then* and what she was feeling *then*. I find that fairly admirable. To go back and rethink her grief and feelings and put them into another context would have been dishonest.

Does she draw on her's and her husband's previous work? Sure. Does she tie it in nicely to how her past and present have collided? Absolutely.

Didion literally relates her year (ok, year and one day), so I have to say I'm amazed at some of the reviews. Who cares where she ate lunch, stayed at, flew to or knew? It was her experience. Call it namedropping et al, the story is hers and she makes no assumptions that this is how everyone does or should deal w/loss.

Who cares if her daughter was adopted or not - does that change her being a mother? None of it discounts her take at her grief.

This is a fairly quick read. It answers no question - but I'm sure could give insight to grief in others and it shows how one can and does go on, as we all must.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In her book Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion encapsulated the fatuous pretension of a Las Vegas wedding chapel by its motto: "Dignified and sincere since 1954." Her gift has always been a writer's sharp eye for irony and a nose for truth delivered in prose that sings and stings. Now she has turned these gifts inward. The Year of Magical Thinking is a chronicle of grieving and a history of converging loss. As her daughter lies helpless in intensive care, her husband of nearly four decades, John Gregory Dunne, dies suddenly at home during dinner after a massive cardiac arrest. Life changes fast./Life changes in the instant./ You sit down to dinner and lfie as you know it ends./The question of self pity. So begins a new life under abruptly altered terms.

Joan Didion, who is a writer of penetrating sensitivity, admits to shock and unknowing: "This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning." And yet we find in this book words that describe grief's emotional wilderness, life as a nightmare, and in sleep the surcease of dreams. Her daughter, Quintanna, newly married, gradually recovers from her illness to join her mother in grief, then relapses, as the tense year of immense events continues its relentless assault on a life, until now, remarkable for its richness. "I kept saying to myself I had been lucky all my life."

As a wash of reversals challenges her equilibrium, her persistent pursuit of some path to larger purpose changes past assumptions as she makes a fierce effort to face the truth of great loss: "I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead." This is an excruciating comprehension.

In the end, words did find the meaning: if life is to be lived, loss must be endured. Brave and brilliantly honest, secular, reverent of life, sacred and truthful, The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of a woman confronting the worst of fates, unimaginable in the best of times. It is an unvarnished account of human experience. Earlier this year, Quintanna Roo Dunne succumbed to her illness. The author lives in New York City.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I thought this book would be an unbearably heartbreaking account of grief and loss. After all, Joan and John were married for so long. I wondered how she would be able to put into words what it was like to lose him, and I wondered if I'd be able to get through reading it.

The interesting thing for me about this book is that I found myself really tearing up (as in tears) on very few occasions as I was reading it. I was so surprised by how much of the book did not reflect on their lives together, but instead talked a lot about the day-to-day living she had to do in the year after he was gone. Of course a lot of that had to do with Quintana's illness. But I found myself thinking back to the year after my mother died and how I was not a quivering grieving lump of sadness that was barely making it through the day (which I'd always I'd envisioned I'd be when faced with my mother's death). Instead, during that year I tried to get back as close to regular life as possible, and I remember that my thoughts and actions were often random, jumbled, and not altogether coherent. I saw some of that in Joan's book as well -- just having to deal with all these random things that come up as a new person really, one who doesn't have that person whose always available to bounce ideas off of and get advice from (I talked to my mom every day while she was alive).

I think what she's done here is really provided a valuable service to people who have to cope after losing someone that important to them. She did the best she could and she was very aware about when she would be challenging herself and mindful of how she might have to handle it. She has created a very powerful and important memoir that shows the barest bones of grief and true acceptance of being engaged in the process of grieving, however it happens to affect you.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book. It is not a self-help book. It's not exactly a memoir, either, at least in the classic sense. In the book, Ms. Didion speaks of memory as a vortex, something that suddenly collapses time, and brings events & things & people long past into the present. In some sense, this book in its entirety is that vortex, in that she uses it to conjure her lost family, and their lost time, back into something immediate and palpably real. Her family, despite its irrevocable absence, is the protagonist here, and I found her ability to evoke that - and her willingness to move beyond her own grief to bring that to life, despite the pain it undoubtedly caused her - very moving..

I think Ms. Didion wrote about these things - her husband's sudden death, and her daughter's acute illness - because she is a writer. These things were to hand. She wrote a great book about these subjects because she is a great writer.

You do not have to "relate" or "identify,"(although you undoubtedly will, to some greater or lesser extent) with the things she writes about to appreciate this book . You do not have to do these things - draw down context from your own experience - because everything you need to appreciate this book is right there, between the covers, in the sentences and paragraphs.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Didion is a sharp writer - she catches those tiny and poignant details in life that the rest of us often miss, and this book is a clear-eyed and almost surgically precise look at the landscape of grief.

I personally had been hoping that her look at grief would include a look at what happens as you begin to engage in life again. This book didn't offer any kind of solace or understanding of how one might eventually start to recover from grief, which makes me think that this book may be a better read for those of us who are not currently experiencing grief. Those who are in the throes of grief may prefer to read a book that offers some help and hope for recovery.

Didion is undoubtedly a great writer and this is a subject that hasn't been written about or talked about enough. So this is clearly a valuable literary contribution. But I had a lot of trouble connecting with her and the story she tells of her family's life.

She talks about having terrible arguments with her husband about whether or not they will buy that additional home in Hawaii or go on a long vacation in France. Who cares? The rest of us have bigger problems to think about. Then when her husband dies, she sets aside his clothes into piles for the "good" thrift stores and the normal thrift stores where she sent the worn out clothes. God forbid any actual poor people should be able to afford to wear her dead husband's nice suits. Small snobby things like this annoyed me throughout the book.

I gave it four stars because the writing was impeccable. She clearly chronicles a time in life that we will all probably experience, and that is of great value. But if you are looking for an emotionally satisfying read, look elsewhere. She offers no solace and her upper crust snobbishness is hard to relate to.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2007
Format: Paperback
I have just finished reading, "The Year of Magical Thinking". I was unable to put the book down, once I started it. I have been a health care professional for 30 years. I have dealt with personal experiences of death and loss, and have also had the privilege of observing people, dying patients, and their grieving families, who have undergone the same experiences. The author was able to convey the tremendous sense of loss that a person goes through when a close family member, or friend, dies.
It is almost as if an arm or a leg, or, even, a heart has been excised from the person who has been left to cope. I have found that the only thing that really alleviates the pain, is time. There are people who are so afraid of losing a loved one that they live their entire lives without being open to love because they fear the inevitable loss. I would recommend this book to everyone because, in a lifetime, we will all be called upon to cope with death, loss, and grief. When we experience our own "magical thinking", we will at least be able to understand that we are not alone. There are others who have felt the same way we do and have reacted in the same ways as we have.
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