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The Year of Magical Thinking Hardcover – Unabridged, October 4, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Many will greet this taut, clear-eyed memoir of grief as a long-awaited return to the terrain of Didion's venerated, increasingly rare personal essays. The author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and 11 other works chronicles the year following the death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, from a massive heart attack on December 30, 2003, while the couple's only daughter, Quintana, lay unconscious in a nearby hospital suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. Dunne and Didion had lived and worked side by side for nearly 40 years, and Dunne's death propelled Didion into a state she calls "magical thinking." "We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss," she writes. "We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes." Didion's mourning follows a traditional arc—she describes just how precisely it cleaves to the medical descriptions of grief—but her elegant rendition of its stages leads to hard-won insight, particularly into the aftereffects of marriage. "Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age." In a sense, all of Didion's fiction, with its themes of loss and bereavement, served as preparation for the writing of this memoir, and there is occasionally a curious hint of repetition, despite the immediacy and intimacy of the subject matter. Still, this is an indispensable addition to Didion's body of work and a lyrical, disciplined entry in the annals of mourning literature.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
Didion's husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack, just after they had returned from the hospital where their only child, Quintana, was lying in a coma. This book is a memoir of Dunne's death, Quintana's illness, and Didion's efforts to make sense of a time when nothing made sense. "She's a pretty cool customer," one hospital worker says of her, and, certainly, coolness was always part of the addictive appeal of Didion's writing. The other part was the dark side of cool, the hyper-nervous awareness of the tendency of things to go bad. In 2004, Didion had her own disasters to deal with, and she did not, she feels, deal with them coolly, or even sanely. This book is about getting a grip and getting on; it's also a tribute to an extraordinary marriage.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
When my dearest husband died, I lost days, forget phone numbers, people's names, whether I showered. Reading this book provides me with somber reality that not just myself had entered the dark whirlpool of which I was too weak and lost to find my way out. This book as allowed me to read about my own road of grief... Which is not close to ending. And
Superb book, thank you. M