Day 451: The Year of Magical Thinking

Cover for The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s candid account of the first year after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the serious illness of their daughter Quintana Roo (which sadly resulted in her death after the time frame of this book).

The couple had just returned from the hospital, where their daughter’s illness had progressed from flu to pneumonia to septic shock. Dunne died in a manner that was so sudden, falling over forward on his face at the table, that Didion at first thought he was joking.

What follows is an honest description of Didion’s mental functioning and thoughts as she tries to deal with competing traumas in her life—the refusal to believe her husband might not be coming back (she won’t give away his shoes in case he needs them), the constant speculation about what she might have done differently that could have saved him (what if they stayed in Malibu? what if they moved to Hawaii?), the attempt to avoid anything that reminds her of time she spent with her husband. She makes a careful distinction between grief and mourning.

What characterizes this book is the unstinting look at the author’s experience, a willingness to document everything, without avoidance or euphemism. Didion’s intelligence shines through every passage as she contemplates our culture’s relationship with death—for one thing, the harm we have done by ridding ourselves of its ceremonies and even its trappings.

12 thoughts on “Day 451: The Year of Magical Thinking

  1. literaryvittles January 7, 2014 / 11:55 am

    I’ve avoided this because…well…it seemed like something typical for a widow to write. But that last paragraph gave me hope that it might be more than that.

    • whatmeread January 7, 2014 / 11:57 am

      Yes, I think it is, very much so.

  2. Cecilia January 7, 2014 / 12:10 pm

    I read a third or half of this a couple of years ago and then put it down. It was too hard for me to continue. You’re right that she was unstinting in her writing. It was very real and very honest.

    • whatmeread January 7, 2014 / 12:11 pm

      I can see why it might be painful to read.

  3. Carolyn O January 7, 2014 / 12:25 pm

    I’ve thought about reading this, but I’m still afraid to. My fiancé died suddenly almost six years ago, and it’s still difficult to read about sudden loss. But she’s right — it is very, very difficult to grieve when there are no established mourning customs.

    • whatmeread January 7, 2014 / 12:28 pm

      I am so sorry. That must have been terrible. Here’s a thought, though. This book was recommended to me by a friend whose husband died from cancer a few years ago. She said she tried reading other books to help her with what she was feeling, but this was the only one that truly reflected her experience. I am sure she found it difficult to read, but at least for her it helped in some way.

      • Carolyn O January 7, 2014 / 12:45 pm

        It was quite awful — and god, his poor mother — I read quite a few books but not books by widows; they made me feel bad (irrationally, I know) because I couldn’t claim to be a widow. There are no support groups for bereaved fiancées — at least not then, anyway. But maybe soon I’ll read this book.

      • whatmeread January 7, 2014 / 12:46 pm

        That’s actually a very good point.

  4. Emily J. January 7, 2014 / 1:37 pm

    I love this book! I could NOT put it down. I picked it up off my basement shelves with the intent to take it upstairs and put it near my couch or bed so I could read it, and I opened it and sat down there for at least an hour just reading. Didion is a master, but this subject combined with her skill makes it amazing. I gave this one to a neighbor a few years ago when her husband died. I don’t know if she ever read it, but I do think it would be a cathartic read for those who have experienced terrible loss.

    • whatmeread January 7, 2014 / 1:41 pm

      As I told Carolyn, my friend who recommended it to me had her husband die several years ago. She said this was the only book she read that really seemed to echo her experience. Didion is merciless with herself, as far as being completely honest.

  5. Turn the Page Reviews January 8, 2014 / 4:21 pm

    I loved this book for its honesty. While it was painful at times, it is because it is very true. Great review!

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