Each month, our resident book club reviews a new must-read volume that will help to educate, inform, entertain, and thrill you. This issue, Hannah Whittaker reads The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
This week I looked at the influential writing from Joan Didion, an American writer who sadly passed away late last year. Her novel, The Year of Magical Thinking, was a memoir, and grew to become one of the most acclaimed books that covers the topics of grief and loss.
Written by Didion in 2005, The Year of Magical Thinking follows her own journey through grief and trauma after losing her husband suddenly to heart failure and dealing with her daughter’s life-threatening illness at the same time. The fact that this memoir is an accurate representation of Didion’s life is both heart-breaking and extraordinary. Didion made it through these unbelievably difficult times, wrote about her experiences while they were happening, and released her writing as a novel to help other people deal with grief, showing just how much of a selfless and driven woman Didion was.
The general narrative of this memoir follows the events after Didion’s husband’s sudden death, which happened right in front of her eyes as they were eating dinner one evening. At this time, her daughter was also in the ICU in a coma, suffering from pneumonia. What Didion’s writing shows us is how grief is experienced so differently by different people. The shock of her husband’s death left Joan in a great deal of denial, believing that if she kept some of his belongings, like his shoes, he would eventually come home.
In some ways, Joan was forced to relive her husband’s death a number of times, as her daughter woke from a coma not knowing what had happened. Due to the physical and mental state of her daughter, Joan found herself explaining what had happened to her father numerous times as she kept forgetting in the midst of medications, moving hospitals, and long sleeping hours. The fact that during these times, Joan still had the strength to note down her thoughts and feelings, can be seen as one of her coping mechanisms. After all, she was a writer and mentions frequently in this memoir that that’s where she finds her happiness.
This is undeniably a difficult book to read, mainly due to the overarching theme of grief and loss, but one element which I found brought a slightly more light-hearted outlook to this book was Joan’s frequent reflections on her past. The reader is taken through Joan and her husband’s new and old houses, neighbours, holidays, friends, pets, and the young years of her daughter.
The reason Joan brings these memories up is because her grief caused her to actively avoid any scenario where something might remind her of her husband, so by remembering the memorable places they spent their lives together, Joan could avoid the (unknown to her) inevitable grieving process. Having detailed images of these locations that Didion associates with love and happiness adds a unique element to her memoir, as the reader is almost taken on a journey through Didion’s fondest place memories with her. Although these memories are coming from a woman in denial of her husband’s death, they are written with such beauty and detail that the memoir is given a ray of sunshine in this otherwise sad life event.
The style of Didion’s writing in this memoir is also something that caught my attention. The stream of consciousness and slightly monotonous tone of this book helps the reader understand Didion’s true emotions and captures her grieving process precisely. I think what is important to remember when picking up this book is that all individuals have very different experiences with grief and death. Didion and her husband both had a certain degree of fame when he passed, and being in the limelight in a situation like this means that there are a whole other level of people involved and commenting on the situation.
That said, it does not mean that it makes it harder to grieve someone who is well-known, it only requires acknowledgement, as one will subconsciously compare their own grieving process to Didion’s. After doing some more research into Didion’s life and the release of this memoir, it is interesting to see that many critics accused her of voyeurism, as delving into the emotions of grief and mourning were still seen to be a private and personal matter.
Considering these critics’ reactions, I do believe that Didion has paved the way for books tackling the topic of grief as she noticed the importance of sharing her experiences with it. The growing popularity of this memoir in recent years, and after the death of Didion herself, could be explained by the fact that we are living in an era where people are encouraged to share their deep emotions.
This book deals with everything from the irrational, mundane, and downright insane actions that grief may cause in one’s life. Whilst it is crucial to remember that Didion’s experience of her husband suddenly passing away may be extremely different to our own experiences of grief, there are a number of elements within her writing which we can all relate to and learn from.
Ultimately, this is a beautiful journey through Didion’s day-to-day emotions as she deals with grieving her partner and caring for her daughter, with the idea of acceptance (the final stage of grief) being hinted at the end of the book giving it a comfortable and natural ending for the reader.
Page turner: 3/5
You can read more of Hannah’s work by following @hw.reads on Instagram.