The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Life changes fast
Life changes in an instant
You sit down to dinner, and life as you know it ends...
I kept going back to these lines, printed on the jacket, as I tore through Joan Didion's intimate, intelligent, heart-wrenching memoir of deepest love and deepest pain; I kept reading them again and again and again, there below the picture of her with husband John Gregory Dunne and daughter Quintana Roo Dunne, taken in Malibu, 1976, a time and a place when change was only exciting, and there was no thought of life ending. I was drawn to those lines, which also open the book, because to me they so beautifully encapsulate life's hard turns and sudden, violent collisions. One minute things are one way, the next, they're another way altogether. As Didion points out, have you ever heard a sad story that didn't begin with some form of "It started out just like any other day..."?
This is what happened to Didion in December, 2003, the starting point of The Year of Magical Thinking: five days after their only child Quintana slipped into a coma due to complications from pneumonia, Didion's husband of 40 years had a massive coronary failure and died in their living room as she was making dinner. Nearly a month later Quintana finally awoke, and Didion had to tell her the horrifying news.
How does one deal with such a thing?
That's what Didion tells us here: how one deals with such a thing. She self-examines the difference between grief (immediate, sharp, painful) and mourning (deep, long-term, aching), and the necessity of experiencing both; she openly describes her rage, and insanity, and emotional instability; and she shares her realization that her need to find out every detail of Dunne's medical condition (he had had heart problems for years, but still she asked for an autopsy to be administered), and to remember every minute of those last few weeks of his life ("was it two days before he died that he said this, or was it three?"), and little things like being unable to get rid of all of his shoes ("he'll need at least one pair when he comes back"), that this wasn't obsessive, or "wallowing"... it was more like, if she could just understand everything, she could change what had happened—through magical thinking, she could give that December night a different ending.
The book moved me in so many ways, but perhaps what has stayed with me the most these past few weeks is Didion's heartfelt portrait of her and Dunne's extraordinary love for each other, and their constant companionship, and respect, and friendship, which shine through all of her reminiscences of their four decades of marriage. Deepest love; deepest pain. The Year of Magical Thinking was the last book I read in 2006, and it was also quite possibly my favorite of the year.
PS: Today in the mail I received an announcement that Vanessa Redgrave is starring in Didion's theatrical adaptation of Magical Thinking, which will go into previews in March. I'm buying tickets tonight.