Books to Read: The Year of Magical Thinking

For those of us, the lucky ones, who have never experienced the death of a spouse or significant other, it’s not something we like to think about. When I consider what would happen if I lost J, I focus on the practical. How I would have to sell our new loft and find a smaller place. How I would tell his parents. How our cat would grieve and whine.

Beyond that, it’s a deliberate void. The thought of someone that’s become part of me suddenly gone is a black spot in the brain that can’t be breached. Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking stormed the ramparts and brought the possible out in the open.

There are two amazing things about this book. The subject matter is dark and forbidding: Didion’s husband drops dead one evening, and she commences a year of mourning, a year in which she can’t help but believe that he’s not really dead, that he’s merely absent a time. When she goes through his clothes, logically determining they should go, that they could help someone who needs them, she trips up:

I stopped at the door to his room.
I could not give away the rest of his shoes.
I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.
The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated this thought.
I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.

During her grief, she’s also taking care of her adult daughter, severely ill at the time. Although the subject material is necessarily sad and even upsetting, it’s absolutely compelling. It’s a page-turner, a term usually applied to crappy paperbacks you find in the bargain bins or bodice-rippers. Instead, it’s a literate, delicate, but riveting read.

That leads to the other amazing part of this book. She writes so simply, so matter of factly, that taken out of context some parts could be mistaken for a how-to, a magazine article for a business audience, or other sparse and stripped down book. She’s a writer, of course, so she approaches her grief like a writer. And she presents her feelings like a writer. The result is accessibility, universality, and staying power.

One of the best reviews I saw of this book is on the back cover, from Lev Grossman at Time:

“An act of consummate literary bravery, a writer known for her clarity allowing us to watch her mind as it becomes clouded with grief…”

A fantastic summary of the power of this book.