The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

I’m just going to start with this β€” I don’t think I understood this book. I don’t think anyone in my book club (for which I read this book) understood this book. I made this discovery at the book club meeting, during which we found some discussion questions including (to paraphrase) “How did Didion use humor in this book?” and “What parts of this book were exhilarating?”

We couldn’t come up with humor. We couldn’t come up with exhilaration. We came up with introspection, detachment, plodding…

Which is not to say that I disliked this book. I didn’t like it, perhaps, but I found it very intriguing, which is more than I can say for some of my fellow readers!

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, which happens suddenly if not unexpectedly at the dinner table, and how she makes it through the first year after his death. This is not easy after forty years of marriage and the rocky previous year in their relationship, and it is especially difficult because Didion’s daughter is, from five days before the death to the end of Didion’s narration, in and out of the hospital herself with mystery ailments that don’t bode well for her.

I did not find it an exhilarating book; in fact, Didion seems to go out of her way to make everything very rational and straightforward, even the things that aren’t naturally so, and provide a sort of road map to life as a widow. She speaks of being called a “cool customer” by her social worker, of saving her husband’s shoes just in case he comes back, of dealing with the panic that is set off by the most innocuous of memories. I haven’t lost a spouse of forty years, but I have lost some loved ones in my time, and I can see a lot of Didion’s reactions in my own, if scaled down.

I can only think that I would have understood and appreciated it better if I actually knew who Didion was outside of the scope of this book, and knew the context of her life in which to place all of these events. I felt absolutely lost when Didion would mention friends or locations that meant nothing to me, or when she referenced previous novels by her or her husband. I knew there must be a connection to be made, but I had no idea what it was or how to make it.

So on the whole, I found this book fairly depressing and a bit under-explained in places (and over-explained in others), but I did find it an interesting read for the simple honesty of it all.

Recommendation: I really don’t know who this was written for. I’m going to say that if you know Didion or have gone through similar troubles, you might be interested. But I’m not sure.

Rating: 5/10

(A to Z Challenge)

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3 thoughts on “The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

  1. Mary says:

    I think this might be one of your best-written reviews… which I say because I'm not sure I've ever heard anything bad about this book, but you do a good job of explaining why it confused you so much and how others might enjoy it even if you didn't.

  2. Alison says:

    Mary: Thanks! I never really know what to do with books that I am so apathetic about. It helps when I've literally just come back from my book club chat about the book, though!

    Stephanie: What's weird is that the book-clubbers who didn't like it didn't even think it was depressing, so I think if you don't get a little sad about the book, you're not going to like it. πŸ™‚

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