Jim Walsh's Reviews > The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
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Feb 08, 08

Read in February, 2008

Joan Didion's "magical thinking" year is one of tragedy. Her husband (author John Dunne) dies suddenly, and her adult daughter (Quintana Roo - Didion is from California) comes close to death. The year is magical, because Didion often finds herself suspending rational thought. For example, she imagines moments when her husband might miraculously appear again among the living. Anyone who has experienced death knows similar thoughts.

And so, Didion's book is cold comfort to all. Death is inevitable and frightening - yet can we ever come to terms with it? As Didion sharply observes, we survivors never see the death of others coming, and it always feels different than we imagined it would.

Didion masterfully expresses her inner thoughts. Her style is almost stream-of-consciousness. She blends her observations of immediate reality with glimpses of her personal world - contrasting external, real-time events with her inner knowledge of medical research, the history of literature, and past family memories. The resulting dialog is a compelling peek into a mind at grief.

In one passage, Didion contemplates her daughter Quintana's near fatal episode with septic shock (at Christmas time). Quintana receives a new, expensive drug produced by a big pharmaceutical company. Later, Didion researches the drug on the Web, where she learns about the company's attempts to break into "the sepsis market." How could her beloved Quintana - deathly ill and recently married - be a mere faceless marketing number? Yes, the rational, quantitative functioning of global capitalism seems blind to human emotion.

This reviewer identifies with Didion's drive to understand illness and death through research. Since she was a girl, Didion's plan to face the unknown goes as follows: "Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control." Burying oneself in research and information gathering is a way to gain control over life's often mysterious events. And research also helps one avoid the feelings of grief and helplessness that result from human frailties.

While a book that covers death and sickness would ordinarily be one to avoid - Didion's book flows effortlessly. Her narrative bobs and weaves (often humorously) through her tragic year, with no regard to chronological order. But "The Year of Magical Thinking" is the product of a master writer - it's no surprise the book won a National Book Award. Didion has been a high-profile figure on the bi-coastal literary scene since the days of hippy-dippydom. And with "Magical Thinking," Didion gives us a mature statement on the falsity of fame - and the shortness of life.
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