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Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Book Review: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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“We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”

This is my first time reading anything by Joan Didion, and maybe I should have started off with something less sad. But I think this was an incredible introduction into her writing. The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s memoir the year after her husband John Dunne died, while their daughter Quintana was in a coma for months. If you are looking for a well-written grief memoir, I cannot recommend The Year of Magical Thinking enough.

Didion and Dunne’s daughter Quintana was admitted to the hospital in December 2003 with what seemed like the flu, then turned into pneumonia, before her body went into septic shock. The doctors placed her into an induced coma, and just before New Year’s, Didion and Dunne left the hospital to go home and eat some dinner, when Dunne had a heart attack and died. Can you even imagine? Your husband of forty years dies instantly of a heart attack, while your daughter is in a coma and the doctors cannot give you a straight prognosis. I just cannot even imagine going through all of that. Luckily, Didion had plenty of friends and family members to help her get through the period after Dunne’s death and before Quintana came out of the coma. But obviously life would never be the same for her.

Because Quintana was in a coma for weeks after Dunne’s death, there was not a memorial service or funeral for John. Didion wanted to wait until Quintana got better before telling her, which is completely understandable. But I think (and Didion agrees) that this delayed her grieving process. Everyone grieves differently, but not being able to hold a service and then still worrying about your only child who is in the hospital definitely delays the grieving process. Didion repeats this statement over and over: “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” If that doesn’t sum up this book and her life, I don’t know what does. 

“Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.”

Didion wasn’t able to properly mourn John and, to an extent, Quintana. Delaying the mourning process was the right thing to do for Quintana's sake, but it must have been incredibly difficult for Joan to move forward. As I have not lost my husband, I cannot say how I would react. But Didion does not say that her way is the right way to grieve and mourn, rather everyone grieves differently and in 2003, that was how she grieved. 

I am dying to read more of Didion’s work. Not only because of her incredible writing, but because she is such a prolific writer and an American icon, it seems a shame to not have read anything else by her. Even though I cried a handful of times during this (one being at the spa before getting a massage, not embarrassing at all), I still think this is one of those books that everyone needs to read. The Year of Magical Thinking is an honest look at grief and the hardest year in Didion’s life. I give it 4 stars.

Let me know what the next book by Joan Didion I should read next!

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