A Year of Magical Thinking

I was a huge fan of Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking, a book that inspired me a great deal as I was writing my own. When some people in my group at The Healing Center decided to go (after much discussion over how difficult it may or may not be), I joined along.

The book is a quirky array of facts around heart attacks and hospitals, consummate with Ms. Didion’s journalistic style. It is littered with her often alarmingly snobby views. But she manages to capture that odd numbness that happens post-loss, the automatic motions, the “making arrangements” kind of behaviour that makes people marvel at how “strong” one is. Her narrator voice is almost monotone, something she is criticized for. One of my favorite lines in her book is when a social worker at the hospital where her husband has arrive DOA, describes her to his colleague as being a “cool customer.” I loved how that line so perfectly captured the outsider’s view of someone in shock after the sudden loss of a loved one. But some of that monotone is simply her style.

It was interesting hearing the continuation of the story where the book left off, learning the circumstances of her daughter Quintana’s death, (she died after the book was published). It was a hint that “magical thinking” can last a hell of a lot longer than a year. And the play certainly captured all the important points, and even managed to explore some of the subtle, nuanced connections she makes throughout the book, such as the idea of “The vortex” that she tries to escape as she drives around LA, trying to make detours in order to avoid all the places that her family had lived and been happy, trying to avoid memories.

I have to admit though that I was a little disappointed. Perhaps it was the actress, who peppered her lines with “uh” just a little too frequently, making it clear that perhaps she didn’t know her lines as well as she ought to have. (Granted, I can’t imagine having to memorize 90 minutes worth of lines). She also seemed to infuse much more meaning into the lines through inflections in her voice than the “cool cucumber” monotone I had imagined.

Somehow the power of loss didn’t come through as well in the play as it had in the book. And perhaps I had forgotten this about the book, but Didion seems to find no real magic in her experience, just pain. Just loss. And to me, that’s a shame.

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  1. Supa Dupa Fresh September 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    You're brave!
    I was scared to read it! In fact, I got mad at the hospice social worker who suggested I read it b/c I knew her husband died AND her child.
    Then again, my sister's boyfriend drowned the year Titanic came out and I STILL haven't seen it.
    I guess I'm an avoider, huh?

  2. anniegirl1138 September 17, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I tried to read it but couldn't relate. Sudden loss and the loss of a long term partner are things out of the realm of my experience and contrary to popular belief, widowhood is not a one size fits all.

    My mother loved it. I checked out of the library for her while she was visiting over the summer and she devoured it in a day. I think she bought a copy for herself when she got back home. Like a good widow, she has quite the grief library. I even managed to pawn off some titles on her from my own collection which is quite whittled down now.

    There is magic to be sure but I don't know that everyone comes away from tragedy and loss with an eye for it. It's that one size theory debunked again.

  3. Abigail September 17, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    I am discovering that there are many people who couldn't relate to the book, probably because of her flat delivery and reliance on statistics and facts. This in fact is her coping mechanism, which is actually the part of the book I related to. She clung to the facts, trying to make sense of her circumstances.

    As Joan Didion explains in the book, Magical Thinking is an anthropolical term often used to describe aboriginal cultures who use "If/Then" thinking. If I do a rain dance, then the rain will come and the crops will grow. She uses it as a metaphor in her book. If she is a strong widow, and takes care of all the proper arrangements, then her husband will return. Its really about her year spent thinking that he would actually return, even though she knew logically that he was dead.

    Its not really the same magic I sometimes talk about, where serendipitous things happen with surprisingly good outcomes.

    Its worth a read, as it touches on many very universal experiences of being a widow, albeit explained in a very detached manner.

  4. BigLittleWolf September 18, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I will admit (with regret) that I also haven't read the book, because the pain of loss – even after many years – can rise quickly, and ferociously.

    It's interesting in our culture how we respond to others' responses to death. Too much emotion, and we call it drama and are put off; too much (apparent) reserve, and we consider the one grieving to be cold.

    Cool remove is both taught, and at times, necessary just to get through. I imagine it would be extraordinarily difficult to "write." I have found that the show "Mad Men" is doing an excellent (subtle) job at showing 60s upper middle class responses to the death of a loved one, the arrangements, and the grieving process.

    Those learned (and survival) behaviors aren't just pertinent to the 1960s. We still rely on them today.

    That same show is also illustrating how little anyone on the outside can appreciate what is going on inside another person, regardless of the face shown to the world.

  5. Jill September 19, 2009 at 11:55 pm

    I never realized there were so many blogs out there by widows. I have enjoyed reading yours tonight, and would like to spend more time with it, and with the many others you have listed. Thought I would share my own new blog as I see I am part of a big world of kindred (if unlucky!) spirits,


  6. Mel September 20, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    I had a very similar reaction to reading the book as you did, and I really enjoyed it. The vortex concept was one of the most powerful and helpful that I learned from it.

    I didn't find her as detached, but I did find her snobby. But it was easy to skip past those parts because the rest of it is so good and worth the read. Not being able to relate to her lifestyle might have actually made the book easier for me to read during my first year as a widow when I was so raw. When you're falling apart, it's a little easier to read about someone who is not so similar on some levels.

    I also really appreciated the story of how her husband died, because mine also died of a heart condition. Even to this day, I've known very few heart widows and it is quite different from the lengthy experience of cancer.

    Thanks for reminding me of the book!

  7. Lisa Lucke September 24, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I'm currently reading it, in some ways preparing for the imminent loss of two relatives who are currently nearing the end of their lives. Having lost others in my family without "the conversation" as I call it – asking them how it feels to be so close to dying, what they are thinking about, what can I do for them (or not do) – I want to experience my two elderly relatives last months in a different way. Didion's book is for me, three steps forward and one or two back with each passing chapter. Difficult, overlapping scenes from the last moments of her husband's life, again and again. As a writer, I'm drawn to the structure of the book now (I'm in ch. 6) as much as the content. It inspired me to begin a journal – letters to my relatives that I am sharing with them. Our last chance to connect will not be frittered away on small talk. We both know how the weather is outside. Where do you think you are going?

  8. Roads September 25, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    It was terribly sad to read about Quintana. What an awful loss that must have been. Perhaps the second book has more to offer, though, since I found the first one pretty maddening.

    The early scenes where her husband died were memorably graphic, but later on she seemed to lose the thread about what she was saying. There was so much in there about their (frankly, eccentric) lifestyle as a bohemian author couple that it felt hard to relate.

    I also felt that her widowhood had an entirely different shade because it happened so much later in life and in the marriage.

    And the biggest issue I had with it was that the book didn't seem to go anywhere. Maybe widowhood is like that, or as you imply above she was still only just starting on the grief process when the book ended — in which case that tended to make me think that perhaps the book wasn't finished yet, either.

    For all those criticisms, I finished the book and remember quite a lot from it. She clearly made me think, and so from that starting point the book delievered, despite a few faults.

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