A Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan DidionIn addition to reading numerous positive reviews and it showing up on several year-end lists for 2005, TG had recommended a couple other Joan Didion books that we already own (Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays), so I decided to check out A Year Of Magical Thinking. The title of the book states the time frame that passes in the book, but it’s hard to imagine many more tragic events taking place in 365 days than what happens to Didion.

Around the beginning of the book, her daughter falls into a coma induced by septic shock. Two weeks after that happens (and two days after Christmas, coincidentally), her husband of almost 40 years dies of a massive heart attack right before they sit down to dinner. A couple weeks later, her daughter is out of the coma and is told the bad news, then only a couple weeks later has a massive edema on the brain and almost dies.

All this is stated on the book cover, so I knew that I wasn’t exactly going to be reading an uplifting sunshiney book. The first 50 pages of A Year Of Magical Thinking are like successive punches in the gut as all the major events described unfold. Didion has a somewhat dramatic flair that seems a bit much at times, but during the first part of the book, she draws you in and really makes you think about how you would feel if some of the same things happened to you. Major life events that she’d never had to worry about are thrown at her rapid fire and the book gives a good account of the range of emotions that she goes through, from self-pity to near complete irrationality.

It’s around the middle of the book that things seem to go a bit off course, though. As her daughter is going through therapy, Didion starts to simply churn out memory after memory of life with her husband as she ferries herself about her everyday life. Many of these memories are repeated several times during the course of the book, and while some of them are interesting, at times the page after page after page of exposition feels almost like random name dropping (whether she’s making note of staying at the Beverly Wilshire, that Donald Rumsfeld was a classmate of her husbands, or that her husband has an autographed copy of a book from Julia Childs). Some of the facts seem to tell a story, but many feel barely relevant at all.

In some ways, I can see how this huge diversion (which takes up nearly half the book it seems) fits in with her at times incoherent behavior after her husband dies. The random thoughts and fleeing memories do seem like they’re coming from someone who is grasping and reaching and remembering to retain every little detail. The problem is that they just don’t add up to very compelling storytelling for the casual reader.

In the last section of the book, Didion again seems to pull things together as she recounts different events and how she is progressing, but by then the story of her daughter is oddly lost. After investing so much into her story throughout the book, that thread simply unravels a bit as the book reaches the conclusion (although through some reading on the web, I found out that her daughter never quite recovered fully, finding herself in a wheelchair before finally dying last summer).

Having said the above, I feel a bit odd being critical at all of such a personal work, but as a reader the book padded out for me in places. I’ll have to plan on reading some of her earlier work at some point.

As a quick sidenote, I must say that I love the simple design of the book cover and the very subtle use of color on the type to spell out her husbands name.