A Thestral of a Book: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

You Might Like This Book If You…

  • have experienced/are experiencing deep grief after the loss of a loved one
  • are a counselor or someone equally invested in human emotion
  • enjoy stream-of-consciousness writing

The Story

This is a deeply personal memoir that captures the winding ways in which the mourning mind wanders. In the course of two weeks in December 2003, Joan Didion experienced a nightmare of events. Her newlywed daughter Quintana was hospitalized with complications from the flu, then put into an induced coma and life support. Then, her husband John suffered a fatal heart attack at home. When Quintana woke up weeks later, Didion had to relive John’s passing by breaking the news to their child. They waited for Quintana to be well again before holding John’s funeral–further elongating Didion’s mourning. Weeks later, when everyone believed the worst was over, Quintana suffered a massive brain hematoma and was hospitalized again.

Didion sat down to write this book at the end of 2004 as a means of processing through everything that had happened in a few weeks, then a whole year. Most of it is about her 40 year relationship with her husband, although she does devote some time to her days in the hospital with her daughter. Quintana died of pancreatitis in August 2005, before this book was published. Didion wrote a second book, Blue Nights (2011), as her memoir about Quintana’s death.

My Review

I bought this book years ago at a Half Price Books. I liked the title. I was drawn in by the wistful family portrait on the back. And I couldn’t step away from the thought of such a tragedy. But it was the tragedy that made me too scared to read it. It’s been sitting on my shelf for years.

The family portrait featured on the back of the book.

When my grandmother died in April, I knew it was time to pick it up.

I am not a stranger to death. I’ve attended several funerals of family friends and distant relatives. Prior to this year, I had already lost two grandparents. But in the past year, the deaths I’ve seen were deeply personal. My dog–the first pet that I had to put down. My student–a recent high school graduate who was killed in a highway motor accident. And my maternal grandmother, the woman who helped raise me until I was in high school.

With each death, I felt waves of grief I had never experienced before. I thought I was over crying, over dwelling on what could have been, over imagining all the sordid details surrounding their deaths… and then it would happen again. And again. I would imagine it hadn’t happened. And then I would beat myself up for not seeing the signs that it would happen. And my mind would repeat this over and over again until I finally learned to accept my new world without them.

This is what it’s like to read Didion’s book. A highly introspective person, she describes the experience of mourning from the inside. Because of the time in my life that I read it, I felt a deep kinship with her, and a gratitude that someone documented this terrible thing that I was going through.

This book is a personal one, a window into Didion. It feels like a diary at times, with her jumping into memories of her husband–memories that I don’t think really matter to anyone but her. I found myself skimming through these sections, then reading and re-reading her passages on the state of mourning itself.

To me, the deepest moment of connection was when she, too, felt that she had “not sufficiently appreciated it.” I was stuck at that stage–of feeling that I had not enjoyed my dog’s cuddles enough, had not soaked up my student’s vibrant personality enough, had not listened closely enough to my grandmother’s laughter and advice. I was stuck until I saw that she was stuck, too. And I finally felt myself beginning to be able to let go.

I’ve seen that people have called this a “classic of mourning,” and that some teachers even assign this in their high school classes. To me, this is a thestral of a book–you only get it if you have experienced loss and mourning on a personal level. Otherwise, I think you’d get bored with her personal stories and frustrated by her stream-of-consciousness writing style. (At least, I feel like I would have, if I hadn’t been experiencing the same kind of jumping between memories and emotions.)

I wouldn’t recommend this to just anyone, and certainly not a classroom of bored high schoolers. This is a book whose misery needs to be respected. Read this if you want to meet with Grief face-to-face.

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