‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ By Joan Didion: A Book Review

Ordained Clergywoman, Hospice Chaplain, and Former Hospital Chaplain

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Joan Didion begins her 2006 memoir about her husband’s death at the dinner table from a massive heart attack, with “life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” 

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In the ensuing chapters, the reader discovers not only the details of John Gregory Dunne’s death, but the intimate details of their life together and especially the way they worked together as well-known writers.

What is The Year of Magical Thinking About?

Didion’s memoir tackles all the mundane details that tend to affect those who are in the midst of real grief and loss. She captures what life is without him, and brings the reader on the journey with her. It’s as if we are all together traveling with Didion as she returns back to the night of Dunne’s death with questions about her memories.

The details that she describes of preparing dinner, making a fire in the fireplace, what they were eating when he stopped talking, and how he slumped makes the reader feel like they are at the dinner table too, watching the surreal events of someone who is taking their last breaths.

The reader begins to get the picture of the pain as Didion sets the exposition in the first chapter. Her husband dies the same evening after visiting their recently married daughter, Quintana, in the Intensive Care Unit at a local New York City hospital. We begin to see that so many of those discerning decisions after a death must wait for a daughter to be told her father has died. (note: Quintana Roo Dunne died almost a year later, on August 26, 2005 and Didion wrote a memoir of her death, Blue Nights in 2011.)

Finding comfort from literary greats about grief

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be,” Didion writes. Anyone who has experienced the sudden death of a loved one understands the depth of her words, and her grief. She seeks support in literature she loves, including C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, the journal he wrote after the death of his wife. She wraps herself up with poetry from W.H. Auden and continues her daily walks in Central Park. Her friends and family are nearby, but it is her reading about death and dying that the reader begins to understand her desire to unravel the mystery as to what happened that night at the dinner table. 

For anyone who has had a loved one die suddenly, there are questions with few answers. Didion explores all of the questions and struggles to find the answers, which is altogether what her “waves” of grief are in the days, weeks, and months that follow Dunne’s death.

She turns to Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette, where under “funerals” she discovers the details of etiquette with the recently bereaved, funerals, and food. And while reading about food at funerals etiquette may not be my way of grieving, it is hers, and the reader can see all the ways grief looks different in us all. In that grief, she tries to reconstruct the hours prior to Dunne’s death, the days before he slumps at the dinner table, as if to remember every detail as they are the most important of their lives together.  

“I said I would build a fire, we could eat in. I have no memory of what we meant to eat. I do remember throwing out whatever was on the plates and in the kitchen when I came home from New York Hospital. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” she writes, and then adds, “I spent a great deal of time trying first to keep track of, and when that failed, to reconstruct, the exact sequence of events that preceded and follows what happened that night.” 

And she does, and we travel with her through those details of daily living. It’s as if she cannot bear to miss any of the last few hours of their life together, and then her life alone without him. Those last details of their life together seem to consume her, but anyone who grieves the sudden death of someone they love knows this desire to remember everything in that first raw, tender, angry wave of grief.

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The Universal Language of Grief in The Year of Magical Thinking

“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness,” she writes months after Dunne’s death. 

We don’t have to have had the death of a spouse or a partner to understand the sorrow she feels. She uses the words common to the universal language of grief that everyone who grieves has found themselves with. However with the death of a spouse, describing this acute loss even with the words associated with grief can become extremely painful. On the night that John died, they were 31 days shy of their 40th wedding anniversary and their only child was in an ICU struggling for her life. 

Didion’s grief swells with the eventual hospital discharge of Quintana, the funeral, and Quintana’s trip back to the hospital on another coast, with a potential life-ending fall that results in a hematoma. The slow recovery of Quintana’s hospital stay in Los Angeles, is another huge wave in Didion’s grief of her husband.

Didion weaves a year of grief in this memoir with the details of death and dying, grief and loss that makes this a beacon of light for readers who struggle with how to not just move forward, but just simply how to move.

Capturing the nuances of grief, and what we expect to feel

We read of how difficult it is, impossible for her to get rid of Dunne’s shoes, as if he will need them again when he returns. As readers travel with her at the end of this year, she writes, “grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it[…]

We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

The Year of Magical Thinking is a Unique Comfort for the Bereaved

As someone who has had both her parents die suddenly in accidents, I found Didion’s journey of grief a comfort to read. A sudden unexpected death of someone beloved is an entirely different journey of grief than someone who doesn’t die unexpectedly. 

Didion takes the reader on a journey filled with the details of a great love, and her struggle to hold onto all of the details, and memory, and remembrances, and the fear of forgetting one detail on all the different waves of grief. It is what makes this a great read for those whose hearts have broken from loving someone who dies, and how someone went about healing those broken places. 

Didion’s book is a memoir for our time. Read it if you have had someone beloved die. It really will help your journey by bearing witness to hers.

If you're looking for more recommendations, read our recommendations for life-changing books and books you must read before you die.

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