It seems uncharitable to admit that I was less than enthralled by Joan Didion’s memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. I was expecting to love The Year of Magical Thinking, having been a Joan Didion fan since I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem in high school. And I didn’t exactly dislike the book, I just found it surprisingly flat for an account of such a difficult, turbulent time (Didion’s daughter was also mortally ill during the period about which she writes). There were a number of wonderful moments in the book, and its circular chronology mimics the mourning process well, but on the whole it lacked some vital spark that seemed to leave it a little bit empty.
As I mentioned above, one of the innovative and interesting things about the book is its somewhat circular chronology, which moves slowly forward in time while always doubling back on itself and on memory. Didion repeats events and memories, always from a slightly varied perspective, much the way the human mind does when preoccupied, anxious, or sad (at least this is true of my human mind, and I am narcissistically extrapolating). She recounts the stages of grief not in a procedural way, but through a kind of formal mirroring in which the structure of the book elucidates the mourning process.
There were also many moments that seemed real in the way of shared secrets, things no one admits but everyone shares. Didion recounts that the first night after Dunne’s death, she felt she absolutely had to be alone. After considering it from several angles, she realizes, “I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.” It is this very kind of magical thinking that we all naturally engage in, I think, when something unimaginable or tragic happens, and yet it is rarely disclosed. We are so quick to pathologize any emotions, thoughts, or behaviors outside of our narrow norms that we often don’t share our “magical thinking,” although in some ways it is the very thing that makes us human. This is the major strength of the book, and its value, despite its faults or lack of energy.
Here I must also admit that part of what turned me off of this book, despite the very real strengths I’ve described, was the kind of unthinking privilege Didion describes in her every memory. She rarely acknowledges that her spontaneous family trips to Hawaii or celebrity life in Los Angeles are fantastic luxuries, available to few, or essentially none. She jets back and forth from New York to L.A., spending weeks at the Beverly Wilshire hotel when her daughter falls ill unexpectedly in California. I don’t begrudge Didion the time with her daughter for one minute, but the casual assumption implicitly contained here is one of normality, of universal experience, and I found it difficult to relate to the emotional truths contained in the shell of extreme and unacknowledged privilege. Perhaps I am too sensitive because of my own straitened circumstances or my concern about privilege and its political and social consequences in the present moment more generally, but I found this consistently off-putting and it really affected my ability to sympathize, which, of course, a memoir about grief requires.
I wonder now if I reread Didion’s older work, writing I once loved and made me want to write, if I would have the same reaction. I think I’ll let it live in my memory rather than reread it and risk losing it forever.