Friday, July 27, 2012

Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

Year of Magical Thinking
From The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion:

Open quote 
I did not yet have the concentration to work but I could straighten my house, I could get on top of things, I could deal with my unopened mail. That I was only now beginning the process of mourning did not occur to me. Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

What I knew of this book was that it was a best-seller, a critically-acclaimed memoir about how an author dealt with grief following the sudden death of her husband. Since it was written by a professional writer, I imagined it offered especially descriptive insights into the human condition. I was disappointed.

The book starts as expected, with the sudden death by a massive heart attack of Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne. What I didn't know about the book was that at the same time, Didion's recently-married daughter was herself in a hospital's ICU, fighting the flu turned pneumonia turned septic shock. Didion's grief is matched by her anxiety over her daughter's illness, her slow recovery, relapse and even brain surgery. In fact, much of the book deals less with Didion's grief over her husband's death, and more with Didion's motherly instincts in overseeing her daughter's medical treatment and nursing her, willing her, back to health.

And those insights into the human condition I expected? They pop up, but not as much as I would have liked. Much of the book reads like a log of what Didion did each day. Oh, there is self analysis. Deep down, she knows that her husband is never coming home, no matter how reluctantly she hangs onto the last of his shoes. She knows that every place she ever went with him is going to haunt her if she returns, but she can't resist going anyway, and can't resist telling the reader all the trivial details that trigger the memories that she calls a vortex that drags her into the past. Less trivia and more self-analysis would have made this memoir universal.

The book is slight in any case, and the unbalance between insight (too little) and recounting daily bouts of depression (a lot) makes it even more slight. The organization of the writing is ragged, almost as if Didion could put down on paper her grief, but couldn't face going back and editing what she wrote. Perhaps the saddest aspect to this is that it was her husband who read her work and gave her the first feedback during their 39 years of marriage. This was the first book she wrote without him looking over her shoulder. She would be the first to say that it shows.

Maybe I'm being too hard on Didion and on The Year of Magical Thinking. If so, it's because I expected more. What Didion delivers is perfectly serviceable. And if it was also therapeutic, so much the better. Even though I was disappointed, I can't say I regret having read it.


"You’re safe, I remember whispering to Quintana when I first saw her in the ICU at UCLA. I’m here. You’re going to be all right. Half of her skull had been shaved for the surgery. I could see the long cut and the metal staples that held it closed. She was again breathing only through an endotracheal tube. I’m here. Everything’s fine."

"Did all parents feel this? When my mother was near death at age ninety she told me that she was ready to die but could not. 'You and Jim need me,' she said. My brother and I were by then in our sixties."

"'It’s not black and white,' a young doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles had told me, in 1982, about the divide between life and death."

"What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?"

"If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them? We who allowed them to die? The clear light of day tells me that I did not allow John to die, that I did not have that power, but do I believe that? Does he?"

"The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none."

1 comment:

Mark Steger said...

Rereading this review of Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking", I have to believe I was too hard on her. This is how she dealt with grief. That's enough. She wasn't writing it for me. Joan Didion, RIP.