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. She too died some short years later. How does one deal and go on continue living in the aftermath of it all? Even more striking, how does one continue to still write and document the whole (what people perceive) grim totality of it all? In the Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion does precisely that and a lot more.
In this book, which encompasses two different literary styles, that of the memoir and that of the field of investigative journalism, Didion, through her own experiences, becomes a searcher, an explorer, for the hows and whys of what death and grieving really are. In many instances, she catches herself in that pool of tempestuous and fluctuating emotions, for when she was not grieving for her deceased husband, John Gregory Dunne, also a noted writer, she was working to help care for her seriously ill daughter, Quintana. She was, in essence, a ping pong ball going back and forth between the death of her husband and the inevitable death of her beloved daughter. The fact that she worked and struggled to adapt herself to the dramatic changing situations in which she found herself is nothing short of miraculous. Fortunately, she had plenty of friends and some family members who helped buoy her up in her dark moments. And sometimes she didn't. Through it all, with her keen eye for observation and analysis, she realized that she now was the focal point of her own story, not the hippies, politicians and whatnot that she so excellently covered when she was (and still is) a stellar example of the New Journalism phenomenon and establishment.
There is a lot in this dense book of facts and musings and much to be gleaned; it focuses and relies heavily on an assortment of written works by doctors and medical people and even some writers who could be considered experts in the area of the dying process and the emotional aftermath results. Primarily, this book delves into the vast and complicated medical and funerary odyssey that Joan Didion found herself having to navigate, from death itself, to the funeral, to living alone and adapting to it, then trying to understand it all and then to having to repeat the whole lengthy medical odyssey all over again with her daughter. While Joan Didion didn't really espouse a particular faith belief, something I found a rather dismaying, she did hold onto what she felt was her lifeline to coping and dealing, and that was the concrete and absolute certainty in science and all the so-called intellectual fact-finding that she unearthed in the writing of The Year of Magical Thinking. I wonder if she ever read any of the books by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, a noted medical doctor of Thanatology? Perhaps if she had, her perception towards religion and the spirit might have been a little different and not so unfortunately narrow and limiting. While religion or even spiritualism did not really have a place in Didion's award-winning memoir, to me, I felt that it was just something that was visually appealing for her (in regards to churches) and obligatory (in terms of prayers and litanies). At the end of the book, however, I felt that Joan Didion was very honest and true to herself and her own beliefs. I respected that in the end, and I appreciated her for allowing us as readers to hear and share in her story and struggle of life, death and bereavement. In writing about herself and this difficult period and subject, she too wrote about all of us, for death is universal and inevitable. Truly a remarkable book!