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.