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Review – “Year of Magical Thinking”

Contributed by Tom Brown

   Author Joan Didion, in a spellbinding 227-page memoir, takes readers through a heart-wrenching double disaster. First, the shock of seeing her adult daughter Quintana nearly die from pneumonia in the Christmas season of 2003. Then, only two weeks later, watching her husband, critic John Gregory Dunne, collapse and die of a coronary during dinner in their Manhattan apartment.

     When her husband’s body was rolled into an emergency room and pronounced dead, one medic remarked to another that Didion was a “cool customer” and didn’t need a sedative. Didion’s story tracks her roller-coaster emotional state over the subsequent year, documenting that, internally, she was anything but a “cool customer” despite her efforts to carry on as normally as possible. Although she didn’t enroll in grief therapy, Didion’s tale suggests that perhaps she should have. Instead, she focused, understandably, on her daughter’s continuing medical needs, suppressing her own emotions. If there is any lesson to be learned from the book, it’s not to underestimate the impact of grief, nor to assume it will begin fading within days or weeks of a funeral.

     What makes Didion’s account remarkable is her honesty in detailing how a couple becomes intertwined after decades together, no matter how intellectually independent they imagine themselves to be. In the case of Didion and Dunne, the bonding was unusually pervasive because they spent almost all their marriage working together every day in the same house. Hardly an hour would go by when they wouldn’t say something to each other, or show each other something they had just read or written. They seldom were apart for more than a few days. And while they had their arguments, and even talked of divorce, their periods of intense anger rarely lasted more than a day or two.

     She writes at length about little changes in her husband’s behavior shortly before his attack, and seemingly random comments that he had made. She wrestles with the possibility that these were premonitions or warning signs that she missed as they both were keeping an anguished watch over their daughter, who at times was in an induced coma.

   As she replays events and dialogue in her mind, she sometimes imagines she could bring John back if she did one little thing differently. She wonders if the clumsy Heimlich maneuver she tried to perform, mistakenly thinking her husband was choking, was a fatal error. Would CPR have saved him in the five minutes it took for the ambulance to show up?

     It takes her several months before she can bear to give away his clothes. And months more before she can handle driving past places where they had lived or enjoyed meals together.

     There are some gaps in her confessional narrative that many would be curious about. She sidesteps discussing the romantic aspects of their marriage and whether she still felt sexually alive either before or after her husband’s death. No mention of any jealousy or possible infidelity, or even whether such episodes colored her grief.

     Yet time does provide a degree of healing. At the end of her “year,” the feeling of loss still remains, and she hasn’t remarried, as her husband had once predicted. But she finally has reached the point of recognizing that Dunne finally is done – past tense, gone forever – and that his death was not preventable.

       “…If we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead,” she concludes.

       She also comes to realize that all of reality is a process of continual change. Restaurants they once enjoyed together will go out of business, buildings where they lived will be remodeled or demolished, and even the mountain landscapes they admired will erode into the sea.


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