Memoir/Biography/Autobiography · Nonfiction

The Year of Magical Thinking

This is the second book that was chosen by my bookstagram based Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge Book Club (if you’ll recall, The Bell Jar, a reread for me, was the first). I am really loving our pacing – we are choosing a book every other month or so, with super low deadline pressure. That is the kind of reading support I need in my life. Plus, I can say for sure that I would never have picked up this book otherwise, so that’s awesome. All good things coming from the group right now, for sure.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

This short memoir is, essentially, Didion’s writing as she processes what I can only hope is the worst year of her life. And by “I can only hope,” I mean that I sincerely hope it never gets worse for her. Right before Christmas 2003, her only child, Quintana, is hospitalized suddenly and unexpectedly (ending up in septic shock and an induced coma). Days later, her husband literally drops dead in their living room (from a massive coronary). Three months later Quintana, after only a short time out of the hospital, collapses and is rushed into surgery to attempt to stop a massive brain bleed (positive spoiler alert: she does pull through, but only after quite a bit of touch and go time in the hospital and rehab).

It’s like reading a person living their worst nightmare. And you can perhaps see why this wouldn’t be at the top of my list of “best books to start the year with” TBR. But I have to say thank you to my fellow book club members for pushing me to read it anyways. Didion’s efforts to “make sense” of her tragedy, along with her musings on grief and mourning, how we experience it, and the mental gymnastics of our mind during the process, is insightful and touching for all its heartbreak. This is a book that I would…will…definitely revisit if I lose someone close to me.

The writing itself is beyond reproach: smooth through its stream of conscious and reflection. This is clearly the work of a gifted wordsmith as she works to process her own feelings. And though that may seem obvious, given the subject and genre, it just comes across so naturally. The flow of the writing perfectly balances and interweaves the feelings in the moment with the experiences of looking back. The stylistic repetition of phrases and sentence structures, both back to back and thematically throughout the novel, is a literary device used to perfection. It creates the perfect tone and feel for a book about dwelling and remembering and trying to make sense of life in the middle of being set adrift from everything that once made you feel safe and assured. (Personal note – there were a lot of citations and medical information that I skimmed over…I don’t know how much that affected my review of the book, but I definitely chose to read this for feel and not for specificity of detail.)

This is a breathtaking and visceral depiction of grief. Superbly evocative of every emotion from numbness to disbelief to anger to the general heartbreak of loss and loneliness. Didion’s portrayal of the connection she had with her husband, and how the loss of that connection affects her, is powerful. Her pain is tangible and relatable throughout her exploration of denial and the subsequent disconnectedness from everything around her, coupled with the struggle to handle how everything she saw reminded her of the person she loved and lost (even if only tangentially related) and the efforts of her mind to not let them go or to find that one thing she could have done differently to keep them around.

“Survivors looks back and see omens, messages they missed.”

Although there were some small things that sort of rubbed the wrong way (for example, what seemed like gratuitous name dropping and a total lack of awareness of the privileges in her life), this memoir was powerful in spite of that. Part grieving process and part homage to the memories of a life with a man she loved, is emotional to the point of being overwhelming at times. I had to read in small sections, taking lots of breaks, to be able to handle it. But it was stirring and beautiful in its tender remembrance and I am grateful for the experience.

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