Joan Didion, an American author who paved the way for many women in journalism and literature, passed away last year at the age of 87. Her collection of books is all intrinsically brilliant and different in their own way, but her writing style is what makes each of them so successful. Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is a supremely humane and heart-breaking work.
This book was truly one of the best I’ve ever read. It focuses on Didion’s story as a writer, her role as a wife and mother, and above all else, the challenges she faced during 2003 to 2005. It was published shortly after the loss of her husband, John, and daughter, Quintana.
Didion’s husband and famous writer, John Dunne, suffered a heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003. Her memory about this night is revisited many times during the book; she writes with purpose and professionalism as she manages to keep her emotions in check. Her writing perfectly represents how grief is a tortuous, slow process, and how we may first experience denial before sadness. “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” she writes. “Grief comes
in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”
Her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, died just one year later. She was in her late thirties when she was first diagnosed with a bad flu that turned into pneumonia. After being in the hospital, she later suffered from septic shock, which resulted in a brain bleed and an induced coma that led to her death in late August.
The Year of Magical Thinking puts into words the reality of loss and the side of grief that no one talks about. It reveals how one minute you’re just living your life, and the next, your husband is slumped over the kitchen table, experiencing a heart attack while having his evening drink.
This memoir changed the way I considered my own life and thought about the people who were close to me — living, dead, and those who are alive but not really living, so to speak.
“This is my attempt to make sense of…. any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself,” Didion writes. Her book is not just a self-pitying memoir of unfortunate events and how we deal with them; it’s an ode to acceptance — of dejection, of welcoming new opportunity, of the feelings we try to suppress and the tears we drown in, and of the joy that we, although may wait a lifetime, will eventually reap.
Her narration of memory and pain is so vivid and hard to imagine, yet it makes you feel like you were right there with her through it all. This book is a stunning piece of writing that makes us question the inexplicable reasons as to why we experience pain and reminds us just how quickly things can change. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant,” she writes. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” That’s not to say that it won’t begin again, but it might not be for a long, long time.
Joan Didion helped me through a lot by changing my mindset about my life and the people within it. If you do one thing this year, read this book. I know 2023 just started, but I can already tell you that it might just be my very own year of magical thinking.