Monday, December 10, 2007

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

On a recent trip to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Kevin and I listened to the audio book of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. I was glad to have an intermission halfway through to browse a picture book art museum because this book, while beautiful, is very intense and very sad.

Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband of 39 years, John Gregory Dunne, died. It's a memoir about grief, memory, and loss, and how those three things interact on a day to day basis after such an event.

Kevin has been a huge fan of Joan Didion's for years, but I had never read any of her work. I was struck by the way she uses the most minute, mundane, everyday details to describe and pick apart a huge, overarching theme. Kevin said, "Oh yeah. That's her thing."

He also said that because of this, some people found the book to be too clinical and cold for such an emotional topic. I didn't find that to be true at all. It seemed to me an accurate reflection of how someone might find themselves reacting to loss. The "magical thinking" that your mind engages in, whether you want it to or not. She describes a memory loop: how one small thing triggers a memory, and then another, and you end up thinking about the same things over and over even against your will. She writes about the many times throughout the day when she would think, "I have to remember to tell John about this." And how she could give away his clothes, but not his shoes. Because he might need them.

Terry Gross did an interview with Joan Didion shortly after the book was published in 2005. At the Fresh Air site, you can listen to the interview and read an excerpt from the book.

The Year of Magical Thinking is definitely worth reading. The writing is exquisite, and it will really make you think. But it might be wise to wait until you are in a good, relatively happy frame of mind before you begin.

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