The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

An autobiography about death and grief is typically not the first book I'll reach for off the shelf. I hate death more than anything. Who doesn't? But a close family friend is presently dying of bone cancer and I was searching for ... for something.  My friend's in hospice, on oxygen, steady morphine drip making him all but incoherent, incommunicado, but for nods and grunts and faint glimpses of that devilish smile that once transformed the most frustrating of days for the people in his life into one feather-light for them on a dime. He probably won't be around come Christmas, if the hospice nurse's blunt prognostications are correct.

Despite chronicling the emotional labyrinth of her devastation in the aftermath of her husband's, the criminally underrated and under-read novelist, John Gregory Dunne's, sudden passing from a heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003, Joan Didion makes reading about her trying ordeal, if not necessarily pleasurable (wrong word) then at least comfortable, certainly compelling, and that's no easy task for anybody, even one as accomplished as Didion, tackling death and mourning, and what for her was arguably at the time the most difficult (and most personal) topic she ever had to write about, losing her husband of forty years. Didion is painfully authentic in her memoir, revealing insecurities, dependencies, confusion and heartbreak that are rarely shared outside the ears of close friends and confidantes. Didion might balk at the reviewer calling her memoir "courageous" or "transparent" as she is, after all, merely doing her damn job, writing what she knows, in her inimitable style of dispassionate reportage.

That patented style of Didion's, while noticeably more passionate in The Year of Magical Thinking, is understandably even more terse than usual -- terse yet thorough. Without overly brooding on her grief or lingering in the immediate aftermath of Dunne's death, she feels it all, whether it's the coroner's or ER personnel's matter-of-factness (just performing their regular duties like they do everyday, seemingly unaware of the deep chasm of incongruity existing between their unaffected aloofness and Didion's bewildering shock at being abruptly widowed); or contemplating her husband's rather sad last words, considering his dynamic -- equally adept at screenwriting as he was as a novelist, essayist and critic -- professional accomplishments.

Joan Didion, 2011, by Brigitte Lacombe
Didion makes her points, makes her peace, at least as much as peace is possible through the delicate power of words and prose, and moves on.  And though, as I said, she neither broods or lingers, I find it ironic how much what she has to say makes me linger, makes me brood (in a good way!), as I dwell on the universality of her perspectives and how impacting they are on even my much less personal circumstances with my friend, feeling how relatable, even comforting at times, are Joan Didion's thoughts on bereavement.

I hear her latest memoir, Blue Nights, is even more minimalistic (though no less potent) in its observations on death and grief.  Makes sense, as Blue Nights covers the even more torturous terrain of the death of her only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, who also figured prominently in The Year of Magical Thinking, as she was very sick at the time of John Gregory Dunne's passing.

The death of one's spouse.  The death of one's child.  God, I feel bad for Joan Didion, reading her and what's she's endured, and yet feel encouraged too, reading her memoir, as if I've just gotten off the phone with a dear friend, and am wiping my eyes from the healing tears I've just shed.


  1. A moving tribute; I am sorry to hear about your friend.

  2. Henri, I too am sad to hear of your friend. When my father was dying, I found solace in Seneca's "Letters from a Stoic." I believe it really helped me get through that difficult time.

  3. Thanks, Bubba! I'm unfamiliar with Seneca. I'll go see if I've got it an anthology somewhere or maybe see if it's online. Thanks for the tip.


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