Sunday Book Review

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion


I’ll admit, I have a bit of a habit of not reading the back cover of books before starting them. If I have a hunch that it will be good, I try to resist spoiling anything for myself. I’d read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, also by Joan Didion right when we were moving to California. It was a series of essays about her time in California and New York in the 60s & 70s, and it was a magical read. Something about the way she writes is so crisp and matter of fact, but still has something enchanting about it.

“…quite simply, I was in love with New York. I do not mean "love" in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again. I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there”

- Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Since then, I’d been craving another good Didion read. Then I found The Year of Magical Thinking and just went for it. If anyone reading this has read that, they know it is not what the title may imply. It is not magical, it is not happy. The book is about the year following the sudden death of Didion’s husband. As you may be able to guess, I was not necessarily prepared. However, it drew me in anyways. I don’t think about death or grieving a whole lot, and while I don’t wish to, I did want to have a better understanding and outlook on dying. This book was a gold mine for that. It welcomed the irrational feelings and doings that can follow the death of a loved one, it didn’t excuse or glorify any behavior, it simply explained.

It was however, strange to be reading this beautiful book on death while in the early stages of planning my wedding. It was an odd intersection. After awhile however, I grew to enjoy reading it while also thinking about my wedding. It’s important to have a healthy mindset about death, and I want to go into my marriage knowing that. All to say, don’t think you’re in for anything magical with this book, but you will end up learning something valuable as you read it.

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” 

- Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking