This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, starting back in 2006 when I suffered the loss of someone very dear to me. I opted instead, that year, to read Year of Pleasures by Elizabeth Berg, about a widow recovering from the death of her husband. I’m so glad I made that decision, because The Year of Magical Thinking is not the handbook on grief that I hoped it would be. It is Joan Didion’s stream-of-consciousness outpouring, one that is disjointed, random, and very personal.
Personal is fine. There’s nothing wrong with personal, and I’m sure this book was extremely cathartic for her to write. However, the title doesn’t fit anywhere in the content and, while there are some profound thoughts about loss, they are sparse. Instead, there is also a lot of zigzagging and digging up old memories. So I have to wonder, if anyone but Joan Didion wrote this book, would it have even been published?
The reviews are very mixed. Some people applaud the disjointed writing style, saying that it is exactly how one feels after losing a spouse or partner. This is true. I wish she had explored that more, the way loss lives rent free in your mind while you’re trying to carry on with life. Other reviewers are annoyed at Didion constantly referring to her upper-class lifestyle, having been married to John Gregory Dunne, and the fabulous places she lived, visited, and dined. I agree. After being bombarded with off-the-mark anecdotes about Delmonico’s, the Beverly Hills Hotel, high-end private schools, and vacations that are beyond the reach of the common man, I found it refreshing when she talked about grabbing a burger at McDonald’s. But it wasn’t enough to buffer the very obvious showiness of privilege, which often eclipsed the tragedies she experienced in a very short amount of time. Was the end goal to appear relatable or to relate her loss? We will never know.
So, unfortunately, it didn’t have the sensitive, healing effect I expected. I didn’t find it magical, memorable, or thought-provoking. But her ardent fans will probably find it very interesting.