74 of 88 people found the following review helpful
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.
41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
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!
36 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2006
I was hugely disappointed by the book. And on several levels. First, with regard to emotions, it was shallow. Second, the language was pompous and pretentious, a mix of poetic and scientific segments that were meant to convey deep sorrow and pain, but actually only conveyed pity and the snobbery of a pathetic personality (little monogrammed notes she leaves all over her apartment...come on! MONOGRAMMED). All this name-dropping and name-branding: among others, she lets you know her husband bought his clothes at Dick Carroll, the most expensive store for men's clothes in Beverly Hills. Didion talks mostly about herself instead of giving an idea of who her husband was and why she so much suffered because of the loss. I was in vain looking throughout the whole book to understand what was the real content of her relationship with John Dunne, but other than money and success, I couldn't find any.
I used to think high of Didion, but then I caught on quickly: that the stiff and rigid female Hemingway style reduces every single thing in life to exactly the same scale so that she never has to be caught at a loss. She never has to confront mystery or sublimity; she never has to deal with an emotion she hasn't falsely persuaded us and perhaps herself she struggles with heroically and then masters. It is really hard to believe in her grief and I don't believe in any of her responses, which are familiar and rehearsed and repetitive and incredibly monotonous.
Then, about her daughter: why should we care that she lost her daughter? And that is actually the level that disappointed me most, and that made me think of the shallowness of a certain type of intellectuals in America who live in luxury, are utterly successful, become star-ified, and obviously are deluded in thinking that their lives, emotions, and sensibilities have universal meanings.
Certainly, I'm shocked by so many positive reviews in this column. As an European, I cannot interpret this other than as fundamental confusion by many Americans between sentiments and the depth and spiritual sublimity of human emotions, one of which is grief.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 29, 2008
This whole book describes events and stories throughout the lives of Joan Didion and her family, and it serves as a way for her to express her grief and try to come to terms with the death of her husband of 40 years, all during a year of what she calls "magical thinking."
It's not an entertaining read. It offers some insight on marriage and family, but overall I felt like I was reading something far too personal, a diary of sorts, something that anyone else might write but never publish. Obviously, since it is Joan Didion, the language, the prose, the style, everything about it flows and stops, flies by and slows down in a pleasing rhythm of words, but nothing about the topic is easy to read.
She studies her grief like a med student studies biology, analyzing the various processes that are happening in her mind, causing the sometimes strange and often random thoughts and ideas with which she is constantly struck.
The immediate comparison that comes to mind is with C.S. Lewis' "A Grief Observed," a comparison that Didion points out herself. The difference, though, is that with Lewis' work, I felt like I suffered through much of the grief with him and finished the book feeling a sense of catharsis and ability to move on. Didion's I felt neither of those things; it simply felt like reading her diary. And perhaps that was the point, but in the end I felt that I should not have read the book, and that's never something I like to feel after finishing a book.
38 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2006
My ears perked up when I heard that legendary writer and New Journalist Joan Didion had written a memoir about the tragic year where she lost both her husband John Gregory Dunne, an equally legendary writer, and her daughter. Then, the book won the 2005 National Book Award for non-fiction.
From the critics' reviews, I was hoping to find a book that would help me deal with my own grief and tough times in my life by reading great writing that would say the things I was feeling but couldn't put into words. Didion, unfortunately, doesn't fill out the full potential of this work. She fills it with extreme detail -- her traveling to see loved ones, the days in the hospital, what she ate, where she stayed, where she bought a sweater, etc -- but never really reaches into the detail of her own emotions, of her grief and loss. She writes like a detached journalist, and some of the better passages in the book are actually when she has put the journalist hat on and tries to define grief by referring to what others have written on the subject. What I really wanted to do is to feel her pain, the love between her husband and daughter and her, and feel how losing them both changed her. But she offers very little reflections, just minute detail -- unnecessary detail. It seems only interesting to someone who is a fan of Didion (or someone who knew her directly and knows what exactly she's talking about) not Jane Reader looking for a) good non-fiction/memoir writing, b) a brilliant meditation on grief and loss.
Not only is the detail annoying, but it gets to be offensive and distracting. I didn't expect Didion to be an "everyman" here, but she seems to be name-dropping and flaunting her wealth. She doesn't say "the hospital," but repeatedly says "UCLA" (and slips in a bit about UCLA's high ranking medical center). She reminds us of all her exotic homes -- Honolulu, New York, Malibu. She didn't just fly somewhere, she flew "first class." She notices her daughter's sweater, and points out -- she got it in Bogota'. When her daughter was at her house, she gives us the detail that she was there to pick up "ruby crystal glasses." She doesn't stay at a hotel -- she returns to the "Beverly Wilshire." She hung out with people like David Halberstam, Katharine Ross, a Manckiewiez. She doesn't just dine out, she goes to "Morton's." Yes, we know you're a famous writer who's actually been able to make money out of the business, Ms. Didion, but could you not be so pretentious? It's really distracting from the basic human story of grief and loss.
When she does make a beautifully crafted statement that illustrates and reflects upon her pain, she repeats it over and over, so as to cheapen it into becoming a slogan. Such as (paraphrased): "One day you sit down to dinner, and life as you know it is over." It is my hope that Ms. Didion will rewrite this book. Maybe she wrote it too soon after loss to be able to really delve into her emotions and pass them along to unaware readers.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2006
This was my first experience with Joan Didion's writing, and, sorry to say, will probably be my last. While empathetic with the horrendous tragedies that befall her, to me the book was a total snore. She frequently rambles (this drove me crazy) and I found very little in this book that would be of concrete value to someone going through tough times. Two thumbs down.
42 of 53 people found the following review helpful
I've read Didion's memoir twice now. The first time I read it was right after it appeared, and I was struck by how much I disliked it when everyone else in the country thought it so fantastic. I concluded that perhaps the subject matter was the real cause of my dislike rather than the book itself.
But having just read Philip Roth's incredible _Everyman_, his recent novel about mortality, I decided to go back and reread Didion. I'm afraid I disliked her book just as much the second time around. But now I realize it's not the book's subject matter that bothers me. It's what strikes me as Didion's inauthenticity.
I think there's something quite valuable about honestly sharing one's grief with others. Doing so not only vents inner tension that can be quite destructive if bottled up, but also helps those of us who listen to become more sensitive to grief and loss.
So it's not the fact that Didion so publicly writes about her loss that sets my teeth on edge. It's the way in which she does it: her account is so stylistically groomed that it comes across as dishonest, contrived. One can imagine her rehearsing the different possible ways to tell the story of her husband's sudden death, carefully looking for just the right phrase. This is perhaps an unkind thing to say. But her memoir comes across (to me, at least) as if it were written with both eyes on publication, not for the purgative reasons she claims. It just seems so...well, contrived and literary, that it's difficult to take anything in it seriously. Everything seems utterly predictable, as if one's watching a B movie.
For all of the book's artificiality, perhaps one could exult in the style of the book had Didion at least managed to pull it off gracefully. But it comes across wooden, as if the text had been worked over one or two times too many. So the book fails, I fear, as both an honest account of grief and as a graceful literary contribution.
How strange, that Roth's fictional account of a man's death comes across as so much more authentic than Didion's supposedly real-life account. How sad, too.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on December 26, 2005
Just because Joan Didion is somewhat famous, doesn't mean she should write or we should read a book about the death of her 71 year old husband with a history of heart disease. The accompanying tragic story of her daughter's illness, made the story more intresting, but not really. The slim volume should have been a magazine article. The author gathered up and reviewed all information available on death and her daughter's illness; pronouncd the death information inadequate and wrote a book. The book is not insightful. Rather, I found it to be self indulgent. It crossed my mind that maybe she had to write the book to pay her daughters medical bills or her own. I rejected that idea and came to the conclusion that she did it to help herself. I think the book is successful because no main stream critic is willing to honestly review the book for fear of being labled insensitive.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2006
Having seen this title in the best seller lists for close to a year and wanting to learn something of grief from a lucid, best selling essayist,I eagerly, and very thoughtfully began this read. What a disappointment this book, largely of essays, turns out to be. The first few pages deliver all that I had anticipated--the events of the evening leading up to the husband's death, the sudden death of an individual with whom she had shared her life for forty years, the narrative of what happened at her home and at the hospital, the delayed reaction shock (she slept soundly that first night after his death)--are told with compelling honesty. Then Ms. Didion strays far afield.
Over the course of the balance of the book she rarely reaches this level of writing again, choosing instead to inform the reader that she and her husband were one world travelling, jet setting couple. They frequently flew from LA to San Francisco for dinner (it was second nature for almost everyone, she brainlessly states). In point of fact, they hit every part of the globe, Paris and Bogota (Bogota?) being two of their favorites. When she is not talking about her travels, her dinners at four star restaurants, her expensive indulgences and her upper class relationships, she occasionally returns to short essays on the illness of her daughter and the death of her husband. In one such composition she talks of the emotion of self pity. It is fairly well thought out. It was at this point, however, that I began to realize that the entire book is about self pity, and it takes this little chapter for one to recognize the unease that has enveloped the reader to this point. Ms. Didion will obviously miss her husband, but she seems to meet this hole in her life with a palpable coldness, a mundane recitation of events, a dissonance that permeates all within this little treatise.
Perhaps this is her way of getting though and getting on. Unfortunately the dry prose and distant conclusions give very little; instead the reader is left with spare, ambient ramblings that tells what grief looks like rather than helping one handle the depths of this crippling emotion.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2006
Okay... I read a lot of books and I believe myself to be fairly intelligent. This book was so arduous for me to read! I am very much in touch with my emotions, have lost 3 immediate family members already in my 30 years of life on this Earth and I am very open-minded... but I could NOT connect to her writing style so I had a hard time finding the emotion in the story. I actually forced myself to finish approximately 2/3's of this book.. and then I completely stopped reading it and put it back on the shelf. At times I felt like I should be using my dictionary along with the book, too...and that is not a good feeling. I'm not saying it is a horrible read but, in my opinion, many people may be disappointed like I have been with this book.