The Year of Magical Thinking

A book about one woman’s loss and tragedy becomes a comfort to those who read it.

Joan Didion was preparing a salad on Dec. 30, 2003, when her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, collapsed in his chair. She thought for a moment that he was joking, making light of the anxiety they had been suffering since their daughter, 38-year-old Quintana, was hospitalized five days earlier after a bout with the flu descended into pneumonia and then septic shock. But his body fell hard to the floor when Didion moved to assist him. Like that, the person she trusted most was no longer there to share that night's dinner, the fire in the fireplace, a stray thought, or the draining vigil their daughter's coma required. At the hospital that night, an attendant complimented Didion for being such 'œa cool customer.' She was no longer in her right mind, though. A 'œyear of magical thinking' had begun.

'œI can't think of a book we need more' than Didion's account of that black year, said John Leonard in The New York Review of Books. Didion is not a casual romantic. Rather, the acclaimed essayist and novelist is 'œa declared agnostic' about many of the stories people tell to give their lives meaning, and she is as sensitive to cant and to the travels of her own mind as 'œa photo plate, a piece of litmus paper, or an inner ear.' Grief, she learns, deserves more respect than our culture usually affords it, said Merle Rubin in The Washington Times. It is disorienting, it is 'œas devastating as an illness,' and it is normal. Her 'œliterally stunning' memoir captures all of it, and does so with 'œan emotional honesty, a realistic intelligence, and a compelling plainness that make it hard to stop reading.'

There's a terrible coda to the book itself, said Robert Pinsky in The New York Times. Didion's daughter, Quintana, died just weeks before it was published. But The Year of Magical Thinking 'œis not a downer.' So 'œthrilling' and 'œsometimes quite funny' is the writing that the book feels more like 'œa forced expedition' into dramatic and unfamiliar terrain, a 'œterrain often lied about, and routinely blurred by euphemism.' It's 'œexhilarating,' because within its pages Didion endures one of life's cruelest passages and 'œventures to tell the truth.'

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