THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion (Random House), 226 pages, $33.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
This is really more journal than memoir. American writer Joan Didion describes her grief following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, during the Christmas holiday of 2003.
The title, The Year Of Magical Thinking, refers to the author's tendency toward fantasy "Don't throw out his shoes and maybe he'll come back," for example.
Complicating and deepening what sounds like a simple premise is the fact that just days before Dunne died, their grown daughter, Quintana, caught a flu that morphed into pneumonia and then full-on septic shock, landing the young woman in hospital.
So Didion and Dunne are already in the vise-like grip of crisis when he dies of a heart attack over dinner. While mourning her husband's death, Didion must also cope with another full-on medical emergency.
Anyone who has felt grief can relate to her story. Though terribly erudite and abetted by reams of research into science and literature as well as privileged by her iconic status, Didion has the symptoms any devastated person would experience: guilt, disorientation and obsession with omens she might have missed. She learns that grief is the great leveller.
In a way, though, the sparse, precise prose Didion's famous for leaches the book of the emotion you might expect in a work like this. Not that Magical Thinking is cold. It's just that the tone of the writing doesn't match Didion's personal despair.
Had she dealt here with the way incomprehensible tragedy defies intellectual rigour, we'd get more of a sense of this fundamental internal conflict.
As it is, we're left with a lovely, sad piece.