Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Reader Friends, I have good news.  As of today, Luke and I are the proud owners of a new and working air conditioner.  We even have a fancy digital thermostat now.  True, we will be eating ramen noodles and Cheerios for the next six months, but the important thing is that our indoor temperatures will not be approaching ninety by 9 AM (yes, that really happened today).  So now that I am A) not suffering from heat stroke just from walking up the stairs and B) not dreading the misery of another night on the fold out basement couch with the dogs, I feel like blogging again.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is an amazing meditation on grief, written after a particularly devastating year in Didion's life.  While her daughter was in the hospital in a coma after suffering from a sudden onset of flu, which became a full body infection that threatened her life, Didion's husband had a heart attack and died suddenly and unexpectedly in their home.  Didion's daughter recovered, only to have a massive hematoma months later.  Again, she almost died and spent months recovering.  The Year of Magical Thinking is a re-examination of this year by Didion, with thoughts and feelings on grief and mourning.

Beautiful.  So, so beautiful.  I've read some reviews that mention the repetition of certain words and phrases throughout the book as a negative, but I thought they really pulled it all together - and fit the theme of grief so well.  There are phrases and thoughts and senses that repeat themselves endlessly as people grieve and I think Didion captures this with her use of repetition in the book.  It also addressed a topic that, as Didion mentions in the book, isn't frequently written about.  There are lots of "how to" type books dealing with grief, but books that anthologize grief or just chronicle what it means to lose are few and far between.  The examples Didion gives - the poetry of W.H. Auden, A Grief Observed, etc - are all excellent selections and I would add her own book to that list of literary meditations on death.

Entertainment Value
I'm not really sure how to describe the entertainment value of a meditation on death.  It's kind of like saying a Holocaust documentary was really entertaining.  It's moving and touching, but it's not a pleasure read.  It's not a thriller or a comedy or something light and easy to skim through.  I had to listen to it piece by piece.  I almost stopped at the beginning - of course I couldn't help but wonder how I would react to losing Luke and the thought is overwhelming.  I stuck with it though, just limited my time listening to it.  It took a while longer, but it helped me enjoy it a lot more than I think I would have otherwise.

A lot of the reviews I've read on GoodReads really bothered me.  I felt like reviewers who described Didion as "cold" and "detached" didn't understand the purpose of the book.  The book is a literary examination of grief and, as such, it totally succeeds.  I cried, but I can see why other people didn't.It's not meant to be a tear-jerker.  If you want to read a book with moving romantic speeches and last moment declarations of love, go read a Nicholas Sparks novel.  If you want to read ten steps to dealing with grief, this is also not the book for you.  If you want to read a personal examination grief and mourning from a literary point of view, this one is ideal.

Other reviewers complain that Didion name-drops or that she writes about living a luxurious lifestyle.  Guess what children?  Rich people and famous people experience loss too.  It's not just the middle and lower classes who lose husbands and children.  So don't get all high and mighty about how she has a plane to fly her daughter cross country after she comes out of a coma.  Yes, she is rich.  Yes, famous people speak at her husband's funeral.  She is Joan Didion and she was married to John Dunne.  She's allowed to experience and chronicle her grief the way it happened and I'm willing to bet that she would trade all the money and all the famous friends in the world to have her husband back.  Her life circumstances don't dictate her ability to chronicle grief - and I think accusing her of name-dropping or trying to show off her lifestyle is just plain tacky.

I don't think they could have picked a better narrator than Barbara Caruso.  I loved her voice and the way she read the book fit perfectly with the purpose of the book.  It was appropriately intimate and thoughtful and I could picture the narrator as Didion herself speaking to me.  I highly recommend the audio version of this one, but I also won't be giving up my print copy.  It's good enough that I want it displayed on my shelf and kept around for a reread.


  1. Great review. I'm going to add this to my TBR pile.

  2. Fabulous review! Thanks for the recommendation.

    Also, I’m a new follower— wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :)

  3. I bought this book years ago but never read it. Thanks for reminding me how much I want to pick it up.

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