Thursday, August 31, 2006

August TBR

Title: The Year Of Magical Thinking
Author: Joan Didion
Year Published: 2005


From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage–and a life, in good times and bad–that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later–the night before New Year’s Eve–the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma.

This powerful book is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”

Why did you get this book? Its review in The New York Times Book Review appealed to me. In it, the reviewer included the same quote appearing at the end of the blurb.

It was “the shallowness of sanity” part of that quote that tripped me. It reminded me of a difficult time in my own past where I decided that it was a relatively short walk to the edge (as in edge of a cliff). From that point on in my life, I’ve been careful. Mentally. I pretty much just wanted to hear what Didion had to say about sanity. This snippet of her quote suggested it would be something similar to how I felt about it.

Do you like the cover? Plain and suitable to the story.

Did you enjoy the book? I’m glad I read it and will look at it again I’m sure.

Didion explains what she means by “magical thinking” early on. It is heart breaking. It is very simply the idea that, after his sudden death, her husband would somehow come back to her. The entire year following his death is spent in this current. And despite her analytical approach to everything—even the “waves” of grief she describes—Didion continues to hold onto the idea that he will come back. Somehow, she can undo what has happened.

Her telling of this year was not what I expected. Didion researched grief and she imparts her findings by filling pages and pages with references from medical and psychiatric journals, Freud, assorted studies, etc. She even includes snippets from Emily Post (Etiquette, 1922). Didion appreciates the practical nature of Post’s funeral etiquette and the reader appreciates the comfort Didion takes in it. Even though both Didion and the reader (she makes sure) see the appeal of such benign advice. It allowed Didion to continue in her “magical” thinking.

I also did not expect that the better part of this book would center on Didion’s time at her daughter’s hospital bedside—dealing with her illness. As her daughter spent months hospitalized in the year following her father’s death, it made sense upon reading it. I also hadn’t realized (from the reviews) that her daughter’s illness was unexpected—it started as the flu. While this shouldn’t make Didion’s experience any more difficult (she herself tells readers that death feels unexpected regardless of whether it is “sudden” or “after a long illness”), it still feels like an unfathomable injustice. It adds to the “walking around in shock” feeling Didion conveys in the book.

Having read the reviews…I knew ahead of time that Didion lost her daughter in the next year. Knowing this, it was heart wrenching to read the words Didion uses to describe her daily actions and thoughts throughout these months. It was heart wrenching to watch Didion realize, slowly, that she cannot actually be sure of her words to her daughter. “You’re safe. I’m here.” It is the first of the cracks in her magical thinking; the first inkling that she cannot prevent Quintana’s death and could not have prevented John’s death.

Throughout, Didion describes the loss of cognitive abilities experienced in grief. This is the shallowness of sanity. It is a very matter of fact view Didion takes when tracking her thoughts during this time. She shares them in the same convoluted way they occur to her. She also depicts how remote these thoughts can be; remote even to herself. This was the point or observation that touched me most. It is brutally honest and I recognized it.

Another point…Didion does not share her thoughts as a “journey”. There is no end to this experience for her and she doesn’t pretend to “get somewhere” in her recovery from John’s death. There is no recovery. She just goes on. When the book ends, she has passed the anniversary of his death by one day. She is now entering the time wherein she can no longer think…”this time last year, John and I were….”.

She has also received the autopsy report indicating that her husband was dead the instant he fell from away from the dinner table. It is when she begins to accept that she could not have prevented his death. It is another crack in her magical thinking.

Was the author new to you? No. I had read Didion’s freelance pieces before. I have not read any of her husband’s novels however. I think I will.

Are you keeping it or passing it on? Keeping it.

Anything else? No.

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