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August 15, 2022

Review in Haiku: The Year of Magical Thinking

By Katrina Stonoff

Beloved husband
suddenly dies. Wife's logic
becomes surreal.

It's a rare memoir that keeps me up at night, but I read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, in three days with little sleep. I felt a little voyeuristic reading this intimate peek into a marriage, but like any addictive habit, I just couldn't stop myself from peeping.

Joan's only child, her daughter, Quintana, was in a coma Dec. 30, 2003. She and her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, spent much of the day at the hospital, trying to understand how a bad case of flu turned into septic shock. They came home; Joan fixed a simple supper, and John died.

Yes. Just like that.

Or as Joan puts it,

"Life changes fast.
"Life changes in the instant.
"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

Magical Thinking tells of the year that followed, a year during which Quintana was in and out of intensive care on both Coasts, and Joan herself flickered in and out of what we would typically call reality.

Returning home from the hospital that night, she found herself trying to do the math: trying to remember exactly what time he died, and how many hours Los Angeles is behind New York, trying to figure out if John was dead yet in L.A.

She has never given away his shoes. She knows he's dead (of course she knows: she authorized the autopsy, arranged the funeral, and has a copy of the death certificate). But she keeps his shoes; he will need them when he returns.

And like many people in grief, Joan replays the events of that evening over and over in her head, trying to find the magic key, the single event that, if she could identify it, could change the outcome.

Magical thinking.

We're familiar with grief. We know the stages: denial, anger, bargaining, sorrow, acceptance. Old information. But Joan says, "Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be." It comes in overwhelming waves, and it comes in magical thinking.

We all know what grief looks like too. It's the distraught widow crumpled onto the sofa, eventually sedated and tucked into bed. Or the "pretty cool customer," who thinks to grab medical records, damp the fire and lock the door as she follows the paramedic out. What we don't expect is the Cool Customer who keeps shoes her dead husband will need when he comes back.

I've been reading Joan Didion since college. Her stark imagery, the sharp parallels between her fiction and her autobiographical New Yorker essays, her dry tone: all fascinate me. But the last book was disappointing. Where I Was From, the story of California written by a native daughter, was so dry it was passionless, and only state historians and diehard fans would find much of interest there.

But Magical Thinking is everything I could want: Joan's clear-eyed intelligence and wisdom, softened by age and made gentle by loss. Magical Thinking is a love song, sung by a lyric voice that chokes in spots.

Quintana died in August, when Magical Thinking was in galleys, but Joan chose not to include an update. This story is about Joan and John. About a marriage, a sleep and a wakening.

When she finally came out of the magical thinking, she realized it had been part of her marriage all along. John always saw her as the woman he'd married (young and vivacious), so she saw herself the same way. It has only been since his death that she has begun to see herself as others do: 71 years old, white-haired and alone.

Alone but for a nation of fans like me.

Mark my words (I'm going to prophecy here): The Year of Magical Thinking will go down as Joan Didion's quintessential work.

*Katrina steps down from the pulpit, removes her prophet's robes and hangs them up*

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2006-05-08
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