In her vulnerable and raw memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (TYMT), Joan Didion tells the story of her husband’s fatal coronary and her only child’s severe illness. Just the thing for reading around the holidays, right? Truthfully, I chose it because of a reading challenge I wanted to complete before December 31. But within a few pages, I realized I was reading about events that happened during the holidays of 2003. So perhaps there was some bookish synchronicity in the choice.
John Gregory Dunne’s life ended very quickly, and this book isn’t only about that moment in time. In TYMT, Didion gives readers a window into her process of mourning and grieving. They are separate words and experiences, yet are intertwined. Although my husband is still alive, our family has lost many people dear to us in the last several years. Didion’s writing puts many of my feelings about grief and loss into words in a way I likely never could.
She interweaves memories of the good times with the delicate balance of making through the first year after Dunne’s passing. At the same time Didion is recalibrating her life, she is also helping her seriously ill daughter. Her stages of grief are complex, and she doesn’t shy away from writing the hard truths.
Didion uses liturgy and literature to illuminate the moments of clarity and confusion. She refers to her own published work, as well as her husband’s. They worked together, at home, as writers for most of their adult lives. Her life was intertwined with his, and vice versa. They were creatures of habit, peaceful in their connectedness. And yet, at the end of 2003 this stopped just like his heartbeat.
Quintana, their adult daughter, had traveled and experienced life with them, of course. So navigating the grieving process without her made Didion’s experience more difficult than ever. Quintana’s illness gave Didion focus and purpose during TYMT, but it also delayed the moment when Dunne’s death “hit her.” As you can imagine, this made it all the harder.
I haven’t read any of Joan Didion’s work until now. She’s a living icon, and I’m glad to have started here. Her writing is crisp, and she’s not afraid to show her pain, anger, and sorrow. Despite its subject, I found TYMT to be like catching up with my favorite aunt after years apart. The memoir is eminently readable, and I suspect I’ll return to it in my own future times of sorrow.
This is perhaps my final five-star read for 2017.