A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine came to visit from Germany. We travelled and ate and saw as much as we could from Mexico. Then, one weekend, we called another friend and the three of us spend a weekend at the beach, which is when I finally had time to read this book.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
The Year of Magical Thinking tells of the year following the death of Joan Didion’s husband, author John Gregory Dunne. It is a collection of texts where Didion explores marriage, conflict, love, and grief. She tells of her extremely close, almost symbiotic, relationship with her husband and of the void he left once he was gone. It was written the year before Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, died.
This is not a book one can read for the pure joy of reading. It cannot be read one chapter a day before going to bed; it demands attention, it needs time. For me, the best time to read it was during those three days at the beach, when we did nothing but rest by the sea, and I was able to sit down and dive into it.
The first day, I sat on the sand and read the first few chapters. Didion starts by throwing the reader right into the middle of the year after her husband’s death. No context, no preamble, just four lines. The first four lines she wrote after the tragedy.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.”
John Gregory Dunne died at the worst possible moment. He and Joan had just come from visiting their daughter at the hospital where she was-and had been for a few days-unconscious. It was the day before New Year’s Eve.
The second day, I woke up earlier than my friends. I always wake up earlier than my friends, except perhaps for the one who likes outrageously early morning runs. I made coffee, packed my things, changed my clothes and went out to the terrace to continue reading. The book was beautiful and sad and it made me feel blue. Am I blue? It made me think about life, it made me care deeply for Joan Didion even though I had never read anything by or about her before. It also made me care about her husband John. I made a mental note to purchase at least one of his books too.
As I read, I felt the burden of her sadness and her worries. Not as my own, but as if I were a friend who was sitting at the hospital by her side. I wished I could. I knew what I was reading happened more than ten years ago, but I still wished I could sit by her side and take her hand and hope for the best. I knew the outcome of it all even before I read the book and I still hoped for the best. It is what she did as she lived through it. It is what we all do as we live through difficult experiences. We hold on, we hope for the best, we keep going.
At some point my friends joined me, each with a cup of coffee in their hands. We sat there and watched the sea, and we were comfortable with one another, even if we weren’t talking.
“This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose 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.”
I finished the book far too soon. Not because I read it too fast, but because I didn’t want it to end. Even after I did and went on to do other things, I found myself returning again and again to what I had read. It was deeply personal and yet incredibly universal. Didion’s willingness to share her thoughts and emotions, her openness about grief, about loss, about the whirlwind of emotions that come after losing someone that close, made this book special.