Book Notes: The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Read Jul 10, 2020 - Jul 16, 2020

In this memoir, Joan Didion recounts her experience of the year following her husband’s sudden death. The book is about grief and the destabilizing effects of losing someone who was an integral part of her life for so long.

Didion writes in a detached, almost clinical way about her experiences. She writes about the hospital staff describing her as a “cool customer” on the night of her husband’s sudden death.

Her life comes across as very traditionally heteronormative and “charmed” in a distinctly white middle-upper class way. This is visible in all sorts of small and big ways – from how she sees “nuclear family” as a big part of her identity, to how she describes someone else’s overtly racist comment as “colorful”.

Didion is a sharp observer and an elegant writer, and there is beauty and insight in this book. I found it an enjoyable, worthwhile read. But I struggled to become deeply engaged with it, largely because I didn’t find Didion a very relatable or sympathetic character.

Book highlights

It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.

The way I write is who I am.

As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

Had he not warned me when I forgot my own notebook that the ability to make a note when something came to mind was the difference between being able to write and not being able to write?

Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.

In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control.

The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new “ethical duty to enjoy oneself,” a novel “imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.”

This might not be normal, I told myself, but neither was it normal for a father to see a child beyond his help.

Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.

Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?

I kept saying to myself that I had been lucky all my life. The point, as I saw it, was that this gave me no right to think of myself as unlucky now.

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