The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion
A review by Anna Godbersen
In "The White Album," her famous essay about the darker 1960s, Joan Didion includes a chunk of a psychiatric report that she later reveals to be her own, concluding, "an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968." The Year of Magical Thinking, her new memoir about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, performs a similar act of bravery and exhibitionism -- stating, ordering, repeating as it does the facts of her experience -- although it seems, in the Didion oeuvre, uniquely removed from worldly events. After her husband succumbs to a massive heart attack during a dinner at home, she seems outwardly "a pretty cool costumer," in the words of the social worker assigned to her at the hospital. But inwardly, she finds she is "thinking as small children think, as if [her] thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative." That is, she finds herself in the habit of magical thinking, prey to the "vortex effect," believing it is, or was, in her power to bring her husband back. Complicating the author's ability to get over and move on, or whatever one is supposed to do, is the bizarre and grave illness of the couple's daughter, who they had visited in the ICU the night of Dunne's death. Like the young mother who wrote "The White Album," the Didion of now has collected the details, looked up the literature, but she still cannot see the logic of the situation.
Readers of average and above sensitivity will not find The Year of Magical Thinking easy going; melancholy, loneliness and mortality are waiting with the turn of nearly every page. But it is also written in Didion's usual spare, dramatic prose, and it is also a love story, with its telling flashbacks from an unconventional forty year marriage that nonetheless revolved around children, meals, fireplaces and hotels in Honolulu. Didion ultimately offers a fiercely intelligent portrait of grief, at a time when that particular experience is so often treated gingerly, sappily, and then hidden away.
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