The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

Joan Didion and John DunneJoan Didion’s memoir about the sudden death of her husband at a time when her daughter was critically ill in an ICU is beautifully devastating. Joan Didion and John Dunne were both writers. They were together almost every hour of every day.

An explanation of the purpose of the book:

This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.

A truth—that we all struggle to understand how disastrous things can happen when preceded by such normal circumstances.

I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.

On not knowing what John would have said, thought, or done in particular situations. On the idea that you can spend 24/7 with someone for 40 years and still not be inside their thoughts.

I am a writer. Imagining what somewhat would say or do comes to me as naturally as breathing… We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see, we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know.

I see now why so many people admire Joan Didion’s writing. It’s “achingly beautiful” (to borrow from the Los Angeles Times), honest, devastating, and does the most important thing that writing can do.

It reveals the truth, in this case about death and grief, in a way we all understand, but can’t articulate.


5 replies

  1. Oh, gosh. Until now, I’ve known Joan Didion by name only. And I see from the quality of these quotes that that has been a big mistake. How could I not even have known that she wrote memoir, my favorite genre???? In any case, I must now go directly and buy this book.

    One little observation, though, in accord with what she says about not knowing “the smallest fraction of what there was to know”: For a few years, I was in a relationship in which my partner and I had to spend months apart at a time. During those separations, I found that I could conjure him in my mind and make myself feel a little more connected to him by imagining him in his usual activities and with his usual expressions. But I realized that what I really missed was the fact that, when he was there in person, he always had the capacity to surprise me. I wanted him there, not just for what I already knew and loved about him, but for the surprises.

  2. I was really struck by the passage on disaster following the unremarkable too! Everyone I know who was in New York on 9/11 begins their story by describing what a beautiful day it was. I guess not having an overture compounds the disbelief.

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