The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion
Published by Knopf
240 pages, 2005
Contemplating the Vortex Effect
Reviewed by Emily Macel
"Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it," Joan Didion reveals in her newest work of non-fiction, The Year of Magical Thinking, an autobiography documenting the year following the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, from a massive heart attack. During the same time, their only daughter, Quintana, was unconscious in the ICU suffering from pneumonia and septic shock.
Didion, whose work includes Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Play It As It Lays and Where I Was From, is known for her articulate investigations and observational writing style. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion uses masterful research and resourcefulness to come at death, grief and mourning from several angles. She explains her understanding of loss through medical journal articles, books and explanations from doctors. But she allows the reader to hear her thoughts. She admits she is still trying to bring her husband back, to perform a magic trick and reverse the process. "I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking."
The reader sees Didion heading into what she calls "the vortex effect," the landslide of memories that a place or thing cause. Passing a restaurant that her and John once ate at together can cause a connection to a memory about a certain time in their lives, then adds a memory of Quintana at age three, then a new memory of all three of them on vacation. The reader, too, is sucked into Didion's vortex. There is a sense of wanting to pull her out before she gets in too deeply, but also wanting to hear the poignant association of delicate recollections.
The subject matter of the book is heavy. The memoir can instigate the "vortex effect" for readers, causing contemplation about their own understanding of death. This is a powerful and devastating consequence of such touching accounts. Didion's writing provides a discovery of the physical body through medical terminology, as well as her own realization about health advocacy and what someone can do, or learn, for their loved ones in times of sickness and death.
Illness narratives and health writing are rising in popularity. This lucid memoir looks from the mourning family's narrative perspective. It seems that the creation of The Year of Magical Thinking provides Didion a way of coming to grips with her husband's death as an irreversible and inevitable part of life. Support for the author is built through repetition. Didion ruminates over certain phrases: reassuring her daughter: You're safe. I'm here. Implementing advice from her husband: For once in your life just let it go. To applying and absorbing lines from her own writing: You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The Year of Magical Thinking holds the reader in close attention as Didion deals with the loss of not just a husband, but of a colleague and best friend. It's a book that is hard to put down, even though it deals with a subject that is often ignored and avoided because it is so difficult to think about. Didion, however, is forced to think about death and to deal with it. Although participating in Didion's grief is often dismal and distressing, the book is brilliant and breathtaking in its honesty. Didion shares her heartfelt and devastating account in a way that is accessible, intense, real and, most of all, human. | September 2005
Emily Macel is a freelance writer and a second year graduate student at Sarah Lawrence College, pursuing her MFA in creative nonfiction. She was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now lives in Astoria, New York.