October 2005

Didion’s year of grief

By Joan Didion
Review by
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After 40 years of marriage, writer Joan Didion did not have a single letter from her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. This was because, with rare exceptions, the pair was together 24 hours a day. They worked together in California hotel rooms on movie scripts or down the hall from one another in their New York apartment on their respective essays and novels. "I could not count the times during an average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him," Didion writes. Returning home alone from the hospital where she has learned Dunne is dead – he collapsed and died as the couple was sitting down to dinner on December 30, 2003 – Didion remembers "thinking that I needed to discuss this with John."

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's slender, intensely personal, deeply moving and stylistically beautiful account of the year following her husband's death. It was a year in which Didion struggled with the belief that she could have and should have done something to prevent her husband's death ("I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome."). It was a year in which she was constantly swept into a vortex of memories of the couple's former life. It was a year in which grief came in recursive, paralyzing waves. It was also a year in which the couple's only child, daughter Quintana Roo, was twice in a coma and not expected to live. [Tragically, Quintana died in late August, just weeks before Didion's book was published.]

At the hospital on the night Dunne died, the social worker sent to be with Didion refers to her as "a pretty cool customer." Didion is surely one of the best prose stylists writing today, and her account is almost clinically precise. She is unsparing in her examination of the "derangement" she experienced after her husband's death and during her daughter's illness ("So profound was the isolation in which I was then operating that it did not immediately occur to me that for the mother of a patient to show up at the hospital wearing blue cotton scrubs could only be viewed as a suspicious violation of boundaries."). But The Year of Magical Thinking is anything but "cool." Instead, the book reverberates with passion and even, occasionally, ironic humor.

"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," Didion writes. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she offers a powerful, personally revealing description of that place.

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