The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book was not what I expected at all. From the title, I expected it to be about something positive and life-changing. It was about something life-changing alright, but not very positive at all.
I've come across Joan Didion in literature anthologies over the years. I can't remember precisely what short works I've read by her, just that there have been a few and they left a favorable impression. The reason I picked up this book right now was because I own the book--bought it last summer--and wanted to try and finish reading the books I own instead of going to the library to get more books.
This book was about grief and mourning and the gaping hole that gets blown into a person's life when a loved one dies. This book was about the effect the death of Didion's husband had on her as well as the struggles she faced after that while her daughter was in critical medical condition.
The writing was great. I did not have any complaints there. I zipped through a third of the book in the first sitting.
The structure of this book was very different from what I am used to. I don't exactly have a complaint about it, but it was odd for me. Didion kept circling around the events of the particular day her husband died. Then the story would alternate between her present day and flashbacks to her life with her husband, John. There were also these phrases that kept being repeated throughout the book to emphasize points she was making, but a few them started to confuse me after a while.
I was upset by this book turning out to be about such a dark topic, when that was not what I had expected at all. But once I got past that, I found this book to be a little uncomfortable to read. I felt as if Didion was writing about her husband's death too soon. I think she was writing about it only months after it happened. She was obviously still in immense pain about it. This felt too personal and I felt like I was intruding on something very private. In fact, this makes think of something Didion says in the book: that grief is not something the western world is very comfortable with. That public displays of grief are frowned upon and it is considered to be a private affair altogether. People are commended on hiding their anguish. I guess that shows how honest this memoir was. It was very raw and searching and reminded me of what I write like when I write journal entries about something difficult or emotional I experienced. Reading this felt like looking over Didion's shoulder while she was trying to work through the most difficult thing she had experienced so far.
I did enjoy the flashbacks about Didion's life with her husband very much. I would love to read a book about her marriage to John, because from this memoir, it seemed they had a very interesting dynamic and a very loving marriage. They were both writers and they both worked from home. There is a part of this memoir where Didion discusses how horrified one of her aunts was that she and John spent so much of their day together. I enjoy the idea of married people who share the same profession and can even work closely together on a daily basis. I'm not sure I would be cut out for that, but it's very interesting to observe, since it seems difficult to accomplish. Didion and her husband seem to have had a very special connection that I would have loved to read more about.
This quote resonated with me, even though I have not had the experience of losing a loved one, but I could imagine how this might be true. “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”
I guess I just wasn't in the mood to read about a topic as heavy as grief and this diminished my appreciation of this book. I picked a bad time for reading it. I basically just plucked it out of my closet, thinking, hm, I should read this since I own it, and without reading the summary, just dove into it. Also, I have not lost a loved one except as a very young child, which I don't think counts because at that age, I was not even cognizant of the concept of death.
I think it is a little funny how I feel that I was not ready to read about death, because death itself never waits until we are ready for it. The quote that gets repeated quite a bit in this, illustrates that very well: "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
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