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No Consolation of Grief

  • Apr 28, 2010

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Originally, I read this book as a way to cope with a lot of family deaths that occurred during a difficult time in my life. It was recommended by a user of the
 Yahoo Cafe Libri Group, but it didn't live up to my expectations. Perhaps the disconnection lay in the fact that Didion suffered from the loss of a spouse whereas my grief was more distant: my cousin, grandmother, uncle, and great uncle all died in relative succession of each other. I also perceive the grieving process as being unique to each individual, and I found that Didion's coping mechanism was not like mine. She found solace in research whereas I felt numb and stopped reading and writing for a long time. I was so unable to control my emotions that I didn't attend all the funerals. 

Despite grieving differently, I did discover some aspects that Didion and I shared: 1) depression 2) the inability to manage the everyday life, mine surfaced when I lost focus of my educational studies. Unfortunately, these similarities did not endear the book to me. However, I would still recommend The Year of Magical Thinking to any reader regardless of whether one has experienced a close death purely because it is a well-written and interesting autobiography. 

The entire scope of the book follows the year of Didion's life after the death of her husband and the health complications that are endangering the life of her only child. It's not always a chronological examination because Didion's thoughts are fluid as they are constantly influenced by memories, items, and events that will take the reader to another place and time in her life (I liken these instances as memory triggers). Stylistically, the writing often seems like stream of consciousness, which actually makes the autobiography stand out as an unique representation of one person's life. Contributing to this style, the setting skips from New York, which is where her husband dies, to memories in Hawaii, Paris, and both past and present events in Los Angeles. Despite being difficult to follow the progression of time, Didion's grief is palpable through her memory associations. 

The purpose for writing The Year of Magical Thinking is for author Joan Didion to analyze and understand her grief. Because it is such a personal story, her development and progression is often internalized and was difficult for a reader to relate to, especially if your thought process works differently. Despite that fact, she effectively develops her own state of mind and effectively explores the personalities of the two most important people in her life: a) her husband (John) b) her daughter (Quintana). She defines her love for both of them and grapples with grief, depression, fear, life, change, and, most importantly, acceptance. She explores the nuisances of language and uses medical and psychological research to maintain control, even though she knows that she can't control or change the past with her knowledge. Yet, it is the research that provides the comfort she desperately longs for. Also, the exploration of passages from her own writing as well as her husband's provide much needed connections between life and death. 

One of the most disappointing aspects of the book is the lack of photos from Didion's life. True, she paints an emotional and philosophical portrait of the people she loves, but the physical descriptions are lacking, as if her husband was no longer substantial because he was already deceased while Quintana was fast approaching the same result. There is one image on the back cover which is misleading because it was taken in 1976 even though she is writing about the year from December 2003 to December 2004. Originally, I thought her daughter was a child in the autobiography, but it is revealed that she is a recently married adult. Still, the photo has sentimental value and is analyzed by Didion in the book (her daughter and husband are off to the left while she is looking at them from the right side of the patio). 

Despite the fact that it is an interesting look at Didion's most painful year in her life, I could not relate and thus, my rating dropped considerably. I came looking for consolation and respite from my own painful memories. What I found was an interesting autobiography, but nothing that touched my soul. I was not lead to the path of healing. The research and psychological musings, although interesting, are not the way I cope with grief. I intensely cry at weird moments of the day with an inability to express my sadness. I feel an empty spot in my heart and soul that will never be filled no matter how many years go by. Didion's reliance on outside sources of comfort, such as research, made her appear cold and detached from the entire process. I wanted less studying and more raw emotions, similar to mine own. 

The disconnection between the author and I was not the most disappointing aspect of this autobiography. The ending was the worst-- it was rushed and almost cliche. I never fully understood how she let go of the pain associated with her husband's death or how the year of her grief became The Year of Magical Thinking (and the title of her book). I attribute this disappointment to the fact that it is a very intimately written autobiography for Joan Didion, not the reader. 

Even understanding this, I felt cheated. I was left with the same debilitating grief whereas Didion found closure. For this reason, I truly only recommend this book to those looking for a well-written autobiography. Readers who have experienced the death of a loved one should be weary about finding consolation between these pages.
No Consolation from Grief

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July 27, 2011
I read this book also. I did not find solace in it either but I think that I did find kinship wht the author because she did lose her spouse, while I had lost my sister. The degree of grief was similar. So it was as though we belonged to a similar club (this happens in real life too...mom club, coworker club, lost a sibling club etc...) I did find a book when my father died that did help me cope with the grief. It is not a novel, I have given multiple copies of it away when people I love lose loved ones, therefore I never get to keep one on my shelf! Thankfully I wrote the title down: To Heal Again: Towards Serenity and the Resolution of Grief by Rusty Burkus. Check it out!
August 01, 2011
I love the title! I definitely will! Thanks for the recommendation!
August 02, 2011
You are welcome.
August 02, 2011
Not sure when I will get to it, but I'm adding it to my TBR shelves on Shelfari and Goodreads. That way I won't loose the title!
June 03, 2010
I hear you on that opening sentence, been losing family as well. Excellent review.
June 03, 2010
Thanks for reading my reviews. I would say this is a good literary read, but it doesn't provide as much comfort as one who is grieving might hope for. The ending was especially disappointing.
May 29, 2010
Thanks for this insight. This book was recommended to me and I never got around to it. Your criticism forms a very on-point personal reflection, nicely done. Interesting...the research coping methods. This actually motivates me to want to read the book, having the caveat of your perspective will make its flaws more tolerable I think.
June 01, 2010
I do hope you read it! I would love to know what you think of it. Thanks for reading my review too. :)
May 01, 2010
I'm sorry you weren't able to find some type of consolation from reading this book. As Sharrie pointed out, people grief differently and Didion diving into her research was the way she chose to go about it. Other people go about it in other ways, so I can see why it would be hard for you to relate to her because of that. I might read this one at some point since it does sound like a unique autobiography.
May 01, 2010
I would definitely recommend it as an unique autobiography. :) Recently, I've found someone who is reminding me about the beauty of life and laughter. I'm actually quite a serious person even though I might joke around a lot (with really lame jokes). So, it's nice to have someone to take your mind off the dark topics of life and celebrate the brighter points. :)
April 28, 2010
I believe you're expecting too much out of a book. Grief is a personal journey and no two person will share the same sense of grief, not to mention until you are ready personally, there simply will be no closure, whether through reading someone else's experience or through some other forms of reconciliation. I do believe for the writer, in most cases, the act of writing may or may not do the trick. Perhaps it is through writing that you can reconcile deaths and not through reading or sharing. Then again, it's hard for me to guess what my own feelings would be when it comes to deaths of the loved ones. I suppose time will tell but in each relationship, one reacts differently.
April 28, 2010
Sharrie, you have a lot of value to your insight! Thanks for reading my review and reminding me that people act differently to all forms of difficulty.
More The Year of Magical Thinking reviews
review by . April 03, 2013
Joan Didion, one of America's foremost journalists and writers, tackles a universal experience in The Year of Magical Thinking, that of dying, death, loss and grief. Ever the practitioner of the literary succinct and eloquent-trademarks of Didion's writing style-she explores these themes and global experiences via her own personal tragedies, i.e. the sudden 2003 death of her husband-of nearly forty years of marriage-in their apartment and their daughter, Quintana's severe ill-health. …
review by . July 05, 2010
Many years ago Joan Didion was featured on C-Span's BookTV.  I don't have many writers which register as rock stars, but for me, Didion is definitely one of them.  The show had a call-in period.  I didn't expect to get through, but low and behold after a few busy signals, did in fact get through to ask a question to one of my literary idols.  I wish I could say I asked her a phenomenal, insightful question and that her face showed she was impressed with my knowledge …
Quick Tip by . July 06, 2010
A great read, and very well-written, but certainly not a book to cheer you up. Read this if you're in the mood for something a bit sad.
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
A fascinating look at grief--how it changes us, how to accept when tragedies happen. A wonderful book.
Quick Tip by . June 15, 2010
Just another new age look at principles that cause people to think they can get something for nothing. That is not how life works.
Quick Tip by . August 28, 2009
The Year of Magical Thinking by iconic writer Joan Didion- tackles grief- a candid, memorable book- couldn't put it down!
review by . February 06, 2009
This whole book describes events and stories throughout the lives of Joan Didion and her family, and it serves as a way for her to express her grief and try to come to terms with the death of her husband of 40 years, all during a year of what she calls "magical thinking."      It's not an entertaining read. It offers some insight on marriage and family, but overall I felt like I was reading something far too personal, a diary of sorts, something that anyone else might write but …
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Adrianna Simone ()
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MY GROUPS (AND COMMUNITY):      The following information was taken from the officialCafe Libri Website.   Cafe Libri (Yahoo Reading Discussion Group)is the original Cafe … more
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About this book


The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), by Joan Didion (b. 1934), is an account of the year following the death of the author's husband John Gregory Dunne (1932–2003). Published by Knopf in October 2005, the book was immediately acclaimed as a classic in the genre of mourning literature. It won the National Book Award in November 2005 and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography 
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ISBN-10: 140004314x
Author: Joan Didion
Genre: Nonfiction,Autobiography
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Date Published: 2005
ISBN: 140004314x
Format: Hardcover (first edition)
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