The Year Of Magical Thinking
“I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”
In 2003, the writer Joan Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack one evening in their New York home. This occurred a mere five days after their daughter, Quintanta, was put into a medically-induced coma in hospital following a deadly bout of flu. The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the 12 months that follows as she cares for her daughter and tries to make sense of her husband’s death
‘Magical thinking’ in this case refers to Didion’s refusal to accept what has happened. The story shifts quickly from a fairly forensic account of the night of his death, to a chronicle of their life together in which she looks for clues as to what might have led to it. In the process, she becomes convinced that he had a sense that he was going to die. He wanted to go to Paris urgently because he had the feeling that if they didn’t, he never would. He wrote in pencil that was so faint as to be illegible. He stopped carrying his notebook, something that was as vital to him as a writer as water is to a fish. To Didion’s mind, these seemingly innocuous facts became portents of something far more sinister.
Didion is at pains to point out that she has never grieved like this before; the deaths of both of her parents were devastating, but she dealt with them in the usual pragmatic ways, sorting through their affairs and giving their clothes to charity. The most telling detail that shows her inability to come to terms with the death of her husband is the fact that she can’t even bring herself to get rid of his shoes, in case he needs them when he returns.
The stories of their life together are juxtaposed with her frequent trips to see her daughter in hospital, and the endless reams of medical notes that she takes as she tries to make sense of what’s going on around her in the only way she knows how- by writing about it.
The novel closes a year and a day after Dunne’s death, as Didion begins to confront the reality of a life without her life-long partner and in doing so, makes an observation about grief that will strike the heart of anyone who has truly experienced it:
“The apprehension that our life together will decreasingly be the centre of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic”
Death in The Year of Magical Thinking
“Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be… Grief comes in waves, in paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”
Although it’s the kind of intellectual book that you’d expect from Joan Didion, it functions more on a metaphysical level, and that’s its beauty. Joan Didion is considered to be one of our finest literary minds, yet even she can’t grasp the visceral reality of life without a loved one, withdrawing to a liminal realm where deaths can be foretold and a life can be resurrected by memories.
Denial is what Elisabeth Kubler Ross claimed was one of the ‘five stages of grief’ and a part of the process that anyone grieving will pass through at some stage. Anyone affected by loss (and let’s face it, who hasn’t been?) will recognize those solitary, transcendental moments where time feels like it has dissolved and that somehow, the other person could still walk into the room. We need that denial sometimes for the sake of our own sanity. What’s so powerful- and so tragic- about this book is that we get to witness a grieving woman try to give form and narrative to a tragedy much in the way she would one of her stories, but failing nonetheless.
And ultimately, that’s what makes the book the wonderful work of art that it is; its brutal honesty allows grieving people everywhere to feel less alone, and more able to pass through the experience. The fact that Didion survives her year of magical thinking makes you want to recommend the book to anyone suffering from loss. But the tangible pain of that loss also makes you hold back from doing so.