[In this book, the author] explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage - and a life, in good times and bad - that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child. Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later - the night before New Year's Eve - the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma. This ... book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself." -Dust jacket.
Despite chronicling the emotional labyrinth of her devastation in the aftermath of her husband's, the criminally underrated and under-read novelist, John Gregory Dunne's, sudden passing from a heart attack on Dec. 30, 2003, Joan Didion makes reading about her trying ordeal, if not necessarily pleasurable (wrong word) then at least comfortable, certainly compelling, and that's no easy task for anybody, even one as accomplished as Didion, tackling death and mourning, and what for her was arguably at the time the most difficult (and most personal) topic she had ever written about, losing her husband of forty years. Didion is painfully authentic in her memoir, revealing insecurities, dependencies, confusion and heartbreak that are rarely shared outside the ears of close friends and confidantes. Didion might balk at the reviewer calling her memoir "courageous" or "transparent" as she is, after all, merely doing her damn job, writing what she knows, in her inimitable style of dispassionate reportage.
That patented style of Didion's, while noticeably more passionate in The Year of Magical Thinking, is understandably even more terse than usual -- terse yet thorough. Without overly brooding on her grief or lingering in the immediate aftermath of Dunne's death, she feels it all, whether it's the coroner's or ER personnel's matter-of-factness (just performing their regular duties like they do everyday, seemingly unaware of the deep chasm of incongruity existing between their unaffected aloofness and Didion's bewildering shock at being abruptly widowed); or contemplating her husband's rather sad last words, considering his dynamic -- equally adept at screenwriting as he was as a novelist, essayist and critic -- professional accomplishments.
Didion makes her points, makes her peace, at least as much as peace is possible through the delicate power of words and prose, and moves on. And though, as I said, she neither broods or lingers, I find it ironic how much what she has to say makes me linger, makes me brood (in a good way!), as I dwell on the universality of her perspectives and how impacting they are on even my much less personal circumstances with my friend, feeling how relatable, even comforting at times, are Joan Didion's thoughts on bereavement.
I hear her latest memoir, Blue Nights, is even more minimalistic (though no less potent) in its observations on death and grief. Makes sense, as Blue Nights covers the even more torturous terrain of the death of her only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, who also figured prominently in The Year of Magical Thinking, as she was very sick at the time of John Gregory Dunne's passing.
The death of one's spouse. The death of one's child. God, I feel bad for Joan Didion, reading her and what's she's endured, and yet feel encouraged too, reading her memoir, as if I've just gotten off the phone with a dear friend, and am wiping my eyes from the healing tears I've just shed.
"Magical thinking" is one way to deal with loss. It helps if you can step out of reality for a few minutes like stepping out doors for a breath of fresh air when you realize the atmosphere inside is about to stifle you. But then there is the renewed shock of "yes, this really happened" poised to deal its blow when we re-enter. It is that ability of stepping in & out of time that might confuse some of Ms. Didion's readers. But her work can be appreciated by those who haave not yet faced the losses she describes. Her prose, as in her other works, is spare, & to the point. Those who are facing loss will find Joan Didion's words valuable traveling companions on a difficult journey.
The Year of Magical Thinking was the book that Didion wrote to express her grief and her understanding of it when, in less than a two year period she lost both her husband and her daughter. This book deals with just the death of her husband of forty years John Gregory Dunne. Their daughter Quintana had fallen ill during the Christmas season, and was in a coma in the hospital. On December 30th, after coming home from visiting their daughter, Didion's husband had a massive heart attack and died. Didion would have to deal with this loss while continuing to visit her daughter, who will recover only to again be hospitalized after a fall where she hit her head and required brain surgery. Again the daughter will recover only to die a few months later. The death of her daughter is dealt with in her follow-up book Blue Nights.
In writing about her own grief, Didion does the same thing that she has done so many times in her essays about the 60s and 70s - she places herself in the story. Firmly anchors herself there, and then steps back out so that she can report on the details as an almost objective observer. It works here so very perfectly - she reveals her vulnerability, her need to understand, her need to accept while acknowledging that she finds this an impossible task. There is no great wisdom to be grasped no matter how endlessly we seek to explain how we are supposed to go on after our world collapses, and life as we know it is forever altered. Grief is a surreal experience. It is not a linear progression - it takes each of us on our own journey, demanding an inventory of memory and of self.
"I have been a writer my entire life. 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. The way I write is who I am, or have become, yet this is a case in which I wish I had instead of words and their rhythms a cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which I could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time, show you simultaneously all the frames of memory that come to me now, let you pick the takes, the marginally different expressions, the variant readings of the same lines. This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself."
This is Joan Didion's memoir of traveling through the strange country of Grief, where all the rules are different, and magical thinking prevails. She tells of being unable to give away John's shoes - because what would he wear when he came back? She records the minutiae of the physiology of grief, the coldness, the digestive upsets, the irrational thinking. Grief - the real heartbreak of losing her husband - is not what she expected, not the experience of sadness that she experienced when, for example, her elderly parents died. "We have no way of knowing," she says, "...(and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is)the unending absence that follows [the funeral:], the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."
I haven't read anything else by Joan Didion - and probably will not. But I am glad I read this. It is as if someone told Joan Didion: "Now, whatever you do, tell the truth," and she was too tired and sad to do anything but that. I see the word "searing" applied to memoirs all the time - it's banal, a cliche. But in this case, well..."searing" is the word.
The story itself is just awful. In New York on Christmas Day 2003, Quintana was admitted to the hospital with severe flu-like symptoms that soon escalated into pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was in a coma and on life support. Five days later after visiting their still comatose daughter in the hospital, John Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack. Four weeks later Quintana woke up and asked her mother, 'Where's Dad?'. It would be the first of many times she would have to explain to her daughter that her dad was gone. Two months later, she was released from the hospital and would begin to resume her life. But as it turned out Quintana collapsed at LAX airport returning home to California. She was rushed to the hospital where she underwent brain surgery to relieve a massive hematoma. She was in and out of hospitals and rehabs for months on end until she passed away in October 2005, the same time her mothers book was being released.
Although my heart goes out to Joan Didion for the heartache she went through during that time, I have mixed feelings about the book. I really wanted to like this book and I wanted to come away with some knowledge of understanding grief that I hadn't had before. That is not at all what I got. Her grief is obvious, but she never really lets you in to the core of her human emotions. She gives great detail of the the movements she made going to and from hospitals and talking to this doctor and that specialist, but it all came across very cold and removed to me.
One thing that bothered me about this book is that she makes it quite clear early on (if you are unaware of who they are) that she and John are literary people who take literature and their part in it very seriously. Everything has to be in connection with a passage they read or a book they wrote. But if you haven't spent 15 years in college and you don't have a Masters degree in literature, you have no knowledge of these references and they can't possibly have the same meaning as they do to the Dunne's, who live and breathe literature. The continuous references became tiresome to me. And these references would take her off onto stories of places she and John worked or lived, different countries they visited or lived for periods of time. Sometimes I forgot what she began talking about in the first place. There is an enormous amount of repetition as well. Maybe that was her frame of mind at the time of writing the book, but it became annoying. I felt she was rambling and her mind was wandering. Maybe it was.
Another thing was the incessant name-dropping. It was as if every single famous person they knew was mentioned in this book. But there was never a meaningful story to go along with it. Just a mention of the name for whatever purpose. Its obvious Mrs. Dunne wanted to make sure the world knows that she and her husband moved in famous circles. THAT was the most annoying thing of all. When she mentioned that after John died and she couldn't eat, that "a friend" brought her Congee from a Chinatown restaurant everyday because that's all she could eat, she never once mentioned that persons name. Unless you were famous, you didn't get a mention. In all the months she was in the hospital with her daughter, there was never any mention of a conversation with Gerry, Quintana's husband. Only his name was brought up a handful of times. That seemed odd to me.
I didn't expect this to be a self-help guide to grief counseling, but I did expect some insight into how she dealt with the pain and the loss. I was very disappointed. Once I finished the book, I felt no closer to understanding her experience than I did after watching her during her interview on Nightline.
I started reading this book in mid 2006. It took me a year and a half to finish it. The review is a little long, and I hope I haven't spoiled it for anyone else, but I wanted to be honest about my opinion. If anyone else has read the book and feels differently (and I'm sure there are), feel free to leave a comment so we can discuss it if you'd like.
In her memoir, Joan Didion captures the year that followed her husband's sudden, unexpected death. She depicts the raw experience of grief so authentically, that the book may be appreciated in unique ways by those who have lost someone they deeply loved. During this same year, her daughter Quintana lies in a coma in an intensive care unit at a New York City hospital. The book takes us through the "crazy thinking" that invades Didion's psyche that year. For example, she worries that if she gives away her husband's shoes he won't have any to wear when he comes back. Some days, she's quite certain he'll be coming back. I understood completely what she meant.
Grief makes us temporarily insane, I think - and Didion, a brilliant thinker, helps normalize that experience. Even the smartest, most accomplished among us can't escape where our minds go when we've lost someone we've loved. Grief isn't simply about sadness, or about wearing black clothing. It's far deeper and darker than that. In some ways, it's a moment of true insanity.
It's a beautiful book, and in her portrayal of grief, I think she's hit perfection. What is difficult about this book, however, is that there's no happy ending. You want to hope that at the end things start to get better, easier - but they don't. Loss doesn't go away. In that sense, it's a dark book. But I found comfort in thinking, "wow, she understands!"
Shock stage: Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news
Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable
Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up
Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out
Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable
Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward
Differently because each grief is the history of the life lost and left. Joan Didion is a famous American journalist, essayist, and novelist. Her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, was published October 4, 2005. The book-length essay chronicles the year following her husband's death, during which Didion's daughter, Quintana, was also gravely ill. The book is both a vivid personal account of losing a partner after 40 years of professional collaboration and marriage, and a broader attempt to describe the mechanism that governs grief and mourning.
It is clear that she moves in top social circles from her life style, which naturally goes by unremarked. The prose is clear and simple, and is best described as personal reportage, and hints rather then shouts the underlying pain of trying to make sense of how/why her husband died. It is intellectually brilliant yet emotionally cold. For a very different account of a writer dealing with grief read Blake Morrison, And when Did You Last See Your Father? Its revealing to me that she had loathed Dylan’s Thomas widow, Caitlin, highly emotional book, Leftover Life to Kill .
What I am about to say is not a spoiler as her daughter health is not used to build up to a point of hope in the account. But if true then it illustrates that Joan may still be stuck in grief or in writing this book moved on. Quintana seemed to be getting better during the period the book covers, she died of complications from acute pancreatitis on August 26, 2005, in New York City at age 39 after an extended period of illness. The New York Times reported that Didion would not change the book to reflect her daughter's death. "It's finished," she said.
Would I recommend it? I hesitate because the account reveals a brilliant, strong woman who is able to do what she does best and write about circumstances that would floor many of us. You finish the last page respecting but not loving her. Don’t read it if you want a cosy cry, but if you look at Death with pride and stand tall she is your woman.
“You may have enemies whom you hate, but not enemies whom you despise. You must be of your enemy: then the success of your enemy shall be your success too.”
Or maybe it should be The Year of Sloppy Writing.
I don't bear Joan Didion any ill-will. At least I never did before reading The Year of Magical Thinking. I think her book about Miami was good. The one about El Salvador sucked. And the vintage ones, I've read them but they don't stick in my mind.
Furthermore, I'm sure this book will comfort many people who have lost a beloved spouse or anyone near and dear. She describes how we protect ourselves from reminders or try to; how the mind keeps pawing over alternative scenarios, bargaining with God. But that about covers it. Perhaps this would have worked as an essay.
But it isn't an essay, so the annoyances return again and again, digging in deeper each time. The Year of Incessant Name-Dropping: does this woman know anyone who isn't a little famous? Yes, but those people don't merit names. Like there's a "friend" who brings over Chinese soup in the week after Didion's husband's death. The person gets neither a first name nor last name. I'm not even sure if the friend is male or female.
Then there's "Jose." Not only does Joan Didion live in a Manhattan apartment with living-room, dining room, fireplace, his and her offices, and a bedroom for a married child in her mid-thirties--there's a Hispanic houseboy available to wipe up John Gregory Dunne's blood. But what does Jose think of this? Does he react? Did Didion arrange for him to do this? Did she consider that maybe this would be easier for a stranger to do?
The worst case of name amnesia applies to the husband, Gerry, of Didion's daughter Quintana. For much of this book, Quintana is comatose. She has only been married for a few months. So Didion (originally with Dunne) sits at her bedside in a hospital (which is always known by a proper name: Blah Blah Memorial Beth Israel UCLA North). Well, what do you do on those countless hospital visits? Do you bring presents for the sick person? Flowers? Clothes? Stuffed animals? Read to her? And for much of this time, poor Gerry must have been sitting there too. I don't think he is allowed to speak a single word or sentence.
Certainly we learn nothing of his occupation or preoccupations, his physical looks or his emotional stamina. There's a mention of "the children of Gerry's stepdaughter" at Quintana's wedding. How old is this man? Didn't his age originally worry Didion and Dunne? Might Gerry be a widower himself?
Though the names are dropped, the named themselves never say anything or do anything more than show up. I suspect that this book was constructed from notes jotted down of comings and goings. But all these names do is come and go. They aren't given any lines, nothing that evokes their characters. It's a particularly glaring omission because Dunne's family has experienced such terrible deaths. One of Dunne's brothers committed suicide. The daughter of the other brother was murdered; this brother, Dominick Dunne, has subsequently won his 15 or 20 minutes several times by covering celebrity murder trials in Vanity Fair. I kept expecting Didion to say something like: Now I know what John/Nick/somebody meant by XYZ.
There's also a nephew whose comings and goings are noted often (though not his brother, who is a minor actor and director). This man's wife isn't "Rosemary" but always "Rosemary Breslin." She wasn't famous but her father is. No more than that. In one of the final chapters, we're told in a sentence that she has died and we're told that a "close friend" died around the same time; this latter woman's unusual surname doubtless means she's related to a top editor at the New York Times. This woman has never appeared before in the book, despite being a close friend. Now wait a minute ... shouldn't we have a word or see a face or gesture from one of these folks, such as Rosemary or her husband, who is mentioned as coming and going? Maybe they say the wrong thing. Perhaps the idlest chatter is what you want. Was there no editor to reflect this back to Didion? Did Dunne always edit her a lot?
Tough early years
The names dropped aren't only people's. They're also of hotels and restaurants and airports. Didion and Dunne apparently only patronized the best. And when they had to hole up to do a rewrite of another disposable movie whose title Didion has forgotten, it was at the XXX Hotel in Honolulu, never the Holiday Inn in Poughkeepsie. Nearly every night, it appears, she and Dunne went out to dinner at a name-dropped place. In New York in the 90's and 00's, this must have been $75 a shot. And this couple also drank a lot. Yes, there was a tight time in California when they were young. They couldn't afford to tip the valet at XXX, so they had to--no!--park on the street.
When you see most so-called travel writing, that's what it consists of: the names of hotels and restaurants. You think: they do that to attract advertisers, but none of that stuff really looms very large in the traveler's mind. Reading Didion gives you pause. Honolulu and Boston and Toronto--all they are to her are the damned hotels. When she was in college, she stayed once at the Ritz Hotel in Boston on her way home to California from New York. This was 1955! So she remembers the hotel and vaguely recalls that she must have visited Cambridge. Then she says something like, "But why would I have gone to Cambridge?" Well, Joan, it's a college town, arguably the American college town. Might have been interesting for a college student from the West to see what an old college city and its students were like. Then there would be the great second-hand bookstores, music clubs, vintage clothing stores.
Is it possible that she's never been to Cambridge since? Or never seen any more of Boston than a hotel, conference center and a few TV or radio stations when she was flogging her books? It seems very possible. And true of many more cities. She appears to have had some psychological problem, an incredible dependency on her husband. Maybe it's related to agoraphobia. When she visited Boston in subsequent years, she'd always make arrangements to fly back home (even when living in California?) in the evening, so she wouldn't have to stay overnight. When she taught for a month in Berkeley in 1975, she flew home to LA every weekend. Once, around that time, when she unexpectedly had to stay over night in the Bay Area, Dunne flew up to have dinner with her. Whatever the absences--a few weeks at most, but even for a single night--they always talked on the phone once or twice per day. So they exchanged no letters.
It's safe to say that neither Didion nor Dunne was much of a novelist or a screenwriter. They lived such a hermetic existence, with such a narrow circle of friends, in such extravagant style. Whenever an opportunity presented itself to see how some of the middle class lived in modern times, she avoided it. To go out to dinner with her students in 1975 Berkeley or with a bookstore owner in latter decades. To eavesdrop in a Boston cafe. Or to talk to the immigrants working in hotels.
It's impossible to imagine Didion, with or without Dunne, strolling down a street in New York and impulsively saying, "Let's try this little Indian/Thai/kosher/Chinese restaurant! It looks cute/clean/interesting." Too risky. Let's make reservations.
Another piece could be written on the issues Didion still hasn't faced (at least at the time of writing this book) surrounding her husband's impending death. He had serious heart problems. He had had a pacemaker implanted a few years before his death. She says this belatedly and very quickly. But it's already evident that he was contemplating his death and reassessing, with regret, his writing accomplishments. She appears to have refused to discuss the former. And the latter is just too painful for her to face.
I think I read his novel True Confessions. I have the impression Dunne wrote superior airport reads. Dunne and Didion probably always told themselves that they wrote screenplays for forgettable "pictures" to enable them to do their real work. In fact, they did it to afford a spendthrift lifestyle. She still had enough time or energy to write books that were respectfully reviewed. He didn't. (Perhaps he was the one that wrote the bulk of the screenplays?) He had doubts about his choice. She can't think about that.
All the boxes are checked: NY Times bestseller, rave reviews from all of the press, hundreds and hundreds of favorable reader reviews, and the winner of the National Book Award. I'm late to the party - or wake - yet again (for this 2005 book), so what else could I possibly add. An ineffably sad, but beautifully written book. Thank you for giving it to us, Ms Didion. My highest recommendation.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
I believe such a book in this style is/was unique for its time. There is much circuitous discussion of the night of his death. And many memories. Of course. And questions about her actions: Could she have done anything differently to save him? Should she have seen it coming? When he said this thing twenty years ago, why didn't she do that thing to change their life for the better? It is a heart-wrenching account of the loss of a life partner and what the mind goes through during the weeks and months after that loss.
I was completely drawn in to the openness of Ms. Didion's writing and found that I could identify with her sense of loss and grief because of the fear that I experienced during my husband's cancer battle nine years ago and the changes that occurred as a result of that.
I will hang on to this book as I believe it will be good for another read in the future.
Just in case you haven't seen the multiple reviews/awards nominations/etc., this book is about how Joan Didion did (or didn't) cope with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the near-fatal illness of her daughter. It is an amazing book. Didion very simply describes her grief; it was not loud or public, but quietly devastating.
I haven't experienced grief like this personally, but I've watched my grandmother deal with it over the past couple of years. And I think I understand it a little better now. Didion clearly explains how we've lost sight of how to handle death and the grieving and mourning that come with it. We expect everyone to just "deal with it" and move on with their lives, which is often the last thing the survivor is able to do.
I almost didn't read this because I thought it would be too depressing. After finishing it, I don't feel that it was depressing at all. I think for someone who's recently lost a spouse, this book might help, if only because it might make them feel they weren't alone in their pain, that someone else had been there.
The most surprising part of the book to me was that Emily Post's 1922 book of etiquette offers the best practical advice and description of the physical and emotional trauma one suffers on a spouse's death. I wonder how much better off we'd all be if we followed her practical and caring advice in all instances today.
One passage really struck home with me. I'm the eternal optimist, and it sounds like Didion was too. In chapter 14, she writes:
"I just can't see the upside in this," I heard myself say by way of explanation.
Later he said that if John had been sitting in the office he would have found this funny, as he himself had found it. "Of course, I knew what you meant to say, and John would have known too, you meant to say you couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel."
I agreed, but this was not in fact the case.
I had meant pretty much exactly what I said: I couldn't see the upside in this.
There's more, but really, you should read it yourself.
After my initial reluctance, I have to give this book a very high recommendation. I'd be interested in what others thought of it too.
Let's get this straight. This is not new information. Didion has been around for decades, equipped with her sharp perspective on the world. Year of Magical Thinking is a heartbreaking account of life after death, and how to continually live through pain. Essential reading.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Joan Didion lost her husband of forty years, writer John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003, at a time when her only daughter was in a coma. This book is her raw account of the year that followed. The reader travels through the stages of Didion's grief with her--from the necessary, intense, distracting focus on her daughter's life-threatening condition to the moments filled by incapacitating memories.
But most of all, Didion wants to understand what happened, what could have been corrected. Ultimately, she wants to understand what it will take to reverse time and bring her husband back. In her search for explanation, Didion methodically approaches this new experience as she has any other--she goes to the literature. She uses existing literature, both popular and clinical, to help her rationalize that which is not rational--the death of her partner.
This is not a guide for people experiencing grief. Neither is it a sentimental journey through the lives of these two authors. But it is very poignant account of one woman's journey through loss. And it is a love story. The little things shared by two who are so inseparable, the way their lives are so entwined...these little bits tell the story of two lives before that horrible day.