Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking
Book: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Publication date: 2005
Paperback: 227 pages
Summary: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is about the year or so after her husband died, an event that occurred simultaneously with a serious illness of her daughter. It won the National Book Award the year that it was published. My husband and I both read this book because we had the opportunity to see the play, also written by Joan Didion. The play carries the story a bit farther and is even more heartbreaking because we learn that the daughter died about a year and a half after the father.
Thoughts: I now have a name for an odd event that happened at my father’s funeral, a funeral that started a few minutes late because I wasn’t there. When it was time to take my seat at the front of the sanctuary with my mother and my brother, I stood at the top of the center aisle and refused to move. A friend of the family saw my distress and led Rick and me to a quiet chapel down the hall. I couldn’t explain at the time what was happening in any coherent way, because what was happening was not logical.
At the back of the church, I suddenly had the thought that if this funeral were to occur my dad would be dead for all of time. For a few minutes, my mind worked desperately to make a corollary of the opposite. If there was no funeral, if the church-full of mourners could be convinced to go home, if there was no burial following the service, then somehow, some way, the death of my dad would not be a permanent situation. Magical Thinking.
The Year of Magical Thinking hadn’t been written yet when my father died. Had it been available, it might have provided something of road map for my mother. Or perhaps there is no way through except for the experience:
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. p. 188
Rick and I read this book at the same time. We’ve never done that before. Here are the logistics: I read it at night in the bath and then a few more pages in bed, so it spent the night on my nightstand. My bookmark was a promotion for the Gardening Help website at the Missouri Botanical Garden. When I got up in the morning, I took the book with me and put it on the sofa where he read it in the morning. At some point, late morning or early afternoon, he found me and transferred the book back to my possession. His bookmark was an admission ticket to the Missouri Botanical Garden, dated 09/17/2009.
The experience of reading a book together, of our marriage alive and functioning, was a contrast to the content of the book, a marriage missing because one of the people in it died. Oddly, I suppose, we did not use either the play or the book to discuss the inevitable: that our marriage, too, is most likely to end in a similar manner. This, I think, is not a denial; it’s simply that we’ve had that discussion already. Had it, in fact, the first time before we even moved in together. When we met, Rick’s father had not been dead a year and Rick had moved back to Missouri to be nearer his mother during that time. When it became clear that we were becoming a couple, he apologized for being six years older than me and for being a man with a shorter life expectancy than mine, apologized for the likelihood that if we were to have a long-term relationship I would end up alone like his mother.
I liked the play better. Rick liked the book better.
I suppose all memoirs come with the implicit invitation to compare my life with the author’s, to learn something from the author’s experience that may help me when I have a similar experience. The book, though, didn’t make that an explicit invitation and I felt uncomfortable at times when I found myself comparing and making mental notes. As if I said to someone who was describing a traumatic event, “I know how you feel,” and that person pointed out, correctly, that in fact I do not know how someone would feel in that situation. So, one thing I liked about the play was that the first lines were an explicit statement of purpose; she was sharing this with the audience because we would experience it one day.
The other thing that came across better in the play than in the book was an underlying sense of humor. Many of the things one does in grief or during trauma are funny when viewed from a certain angle, things like not, at first, recognizing the inappropriateness of the mother of a patient wearing scrubs or the futility of obtaining copies of every conceivable record that can be used to precisely determine the exact sequence of the death of one’s husband. In the book, it wasn’t clear that the author saw any humor, but the actor delivered these lines with a touch of irony or self-effacement that allowed us to laugh several times during the performance. Although Rick and I agreed that some of that humor might have been the interpretation of the actor more than the words on the page.
Appeal: While we were in the middle of this book, Rick posted this to Facebook, which probably nails the appeal rather nicely:
I commented to Joy that I was finding Joan Didion’s “The Year Of Magical Thinking”, “morosely self indulgent”. She responded, “yes but beautifully written”
Challenges: This is my first memoir for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge.
Wow, what a fantastic review! This book sounds like one I could use in my life right now.
I thought this a powerful book and I’ve wanted to read more Didion ever since but have yet to do so.
I had no idea it was a play?
Where in MO are you (am I assuming right?) I used to live in Jeff, Sedalia and Lee’s Summit.
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Yes! She is so self indulgent, entitled and snobbish. It’s hard to feel sympathetic towards her despite the two losses. I hated the book and found it very overhyped. An emperor’s new clothes read.