The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

What I was expecting with The Year of Magical Thinking was not what I got.  I was expecting a memoir, yes, but one that focused on something, well, magical.   I thought it was along the lines of The Happiness Project or other books.  Well, it isn’t.  Not at all.  Instead, The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s memoir of a year in her life when terrible things happen.  First her daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, ill with pneumonia, is admitted into the hospital and goes into septic shock.  The question is not when she will wake up, it is if. One night after visiting their daughter, Joan and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, come home and John suffers from a heart attack and dies instantly at the kitchen table.

The memoir is both an account of what that year was like and also a study of grief.  It is, of course, a reflection of Didion’s personal grief, but she does not leave it at that.  The prose effortlessly weaves in and out of the present, memories and even the scientific.  Most of all, however, it is a tribute to John and their marriage together that never once falls prey to sentimentalism but instead remains heartbreakingly honest and beautiful.

Grief is a fascinating thing — it is something that we will all eventually experience in some capacity and it is one of those things that you simply cannot fathom until you have been there.  What I have thought most about since reading The Year of Magical Thinking is not necessarily anything that was said in the book, but instead the title.  The title confused me at first, but after reflecting on my own experiences with grief and after finishing the memoir, I think I understand a little bit better.   Magical does not necessarily mean wonderful, or fanciful, or perfect.  If anything reading fantasy should have taught me that.  It is “any art that invokes supernatural powers” (Princeton) or, my personal favorite, the “art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural” (  Magical thinking is an anthropological term that refers to the irrational way people think to stop the inevitable.  Grief is a natural way of thinking, as in it is a natural response  our minds have to tragedy, but it never feels that way.  It feels alien and foreign and, absolutely, supernatural.  It is a way to control ourselves.   Grief feels out of control, yet we have “stages of grief” that most people go through and mostly in order.  It is certainly a magical way of thinking.

Outside of the title, the other thing I have been thinking about, and the thing that touched me most about this book was once again not in the text at all, but rather the cover.  It is so subtle (though it is clearer online) that I didn’t notice it until after I had finished reading.  The letters of the title are black, but the letters J, O, H, & N are blue, spelling out her husbands name.  It’s absolutely beautiful.  I know it’s a small thing, but for me it really summed up this book perfectly.  Yes, this is about what it was like for Joan to grieve for her husband while caring for a sick daughter, but it is also a loving memorial to her husband, whom she clearly loved very much.

Favorite quote:

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.  We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.  We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks.  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 their husband is about to return and need his shoes.  IN the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.”  A certain forward movement will prevail.  The worst days will be the earliest days.  We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place.  When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” to rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death.  We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day?  We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue.  We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion.  Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we  imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (188)

So go read this!: When you need it.  You might not find comfort in this book, but where I’m at in my life right now was perfect for reading this book.  You’re never beyond grief, but at this point I can look back at that time objectively and say, yes, I experienced that as well.

Also reviewed by: Shelf Love, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Book Awards Reading Challenge Blog, Care’s Online Book Club, Bookfoolery and Babble, Stephanie’s Written Word, The Written World.

10 thoughts on “The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

  1. Excellent review. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that the title gives one pause, perhaps because the term magic isn’t one usually associated in any way with ‘grief’, once you realize what the subject of the book is. I, too, saw the blue letters of John in the cover art. Such a thoughtful book an every level.

  2. This is such a lovely review! I was worried you didn’t like the book when you started out saying it wasn’t what you expected — with a book this emotional, I was afraid that would be a bad thing. What I loved most was something you pointed out, that Didion explores these themes without being sentimental.

  3. Great review! I especially like the explanation of magical thinking…not what I was expecting. I’ve been wondering about that everytime I see a mention of this book.

  4. Beautiful review! I read this book recently and liked it very much. I read the same edition of the book that you have and I too saw the blue letters, but didn’t think too much about them – so I found your interpretation of it quite beautiful and touching.

  5. I’ve had this on my list since hearing a review on NPR when it first came out! I really need to get this one. Thanks for a great review!

  6. The year of Magical Thinking is a wonderful, emotive and beautifully written book. Joan Didion writes in such exquisite prose. And what a strong, courageous and inspiring woman is she in dealing with the sudden death of her beloved husband and the illness and death of her beloved daughter,the girl with the beautiful and distinctive given names, Quintana Roo . This is a great book with a message that comes straight from the heart, and I highly recommend it to everyone.

  7. Joan Didion explains the pain and sadness and how life changed instantly for her after her husband’s death is very well narrated in The Year of Magical Thinking. A very beautiful compilation of emotions.

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