Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later–the night before New Year's Eve–the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma. This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."
In the year 2003, Joan Didion and husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, receive word that their daughter, Quintana, has been rushed to the ICU (on Christmas Day, no less). Quitana had been battling a severe case of pneumonia when her condition had suddenly turned septic. Just a few days later, December 30th, Dunne and Didion are settling into their dinner meal when Dunne suffers a massive, fatal coronary right at the dinner table.
By October 2004, Joan Didion decides to start journaling some of her thoughts since experiencing all this pain and loss, this journal being the seed that would eventually become this book, The Year Of Magical Thinking. Here, Didion thinks on moments over the course of her forty year marriage to Dunne. Moments where she now, in retrospect, believes there were warning signs of the grief that was to come. As far back as 1987, she recalls, Dunne had expressed fears of premature death. By 2003, what would end up being the year of his death, Dunne had developed a long history of heart trouble, even having a pacemaker installed. Numerous times that year he had said he felt sure he was dying, but Didion admits she dismissed these moments as him just having momentary bouts of depression.
Like most people trying to cope with the sudden loss of a loved one, Didion struggles to navigate through feelings of guilt, that sense that you could have done something more to save them. She even toys with the idea that she can still reverse the outcome of the events. But hey, don't judge. It's wild what grief can do to an otherwise seemingly sane mind.
Didion also shares her feelings on being a mother having to witness her child suffering in illness and feeling helpless to fix it. While Didion's passages regarding her husband read strangely distanced in tone to me, it was these moments where she talks on Quintana that touched me much more. How awful that must have been for her to witness her daughter pull through brutal pneumonia and septic shock only to improve a bit before suffering a hematoma, pretty much putting the poor girl's health struggle back at square one!
This book didn't land quite as perfectly for me as it did for a lot of other readers. That could be, in part at least, to the fact that I often don't do well with books -- either fiction or non -- that are written in a stream of consciousness style. As I mentioned earlier with some of the passages that speak on Didion's husband, the writing, at times, had a distanced feel to me. I acknowledge that grief can often bring on a certain sense of numbness and detachment from the world, but from time to time, this just read a little too arm's length to me, alternately reminding me of either a police report snapshot of events or perhaps a college paper being written on the theme of melancholy.
But that's not to say I got nothing from this book. There were definitely passages that resonated with me, maybe moreso in that I read this the same year I lost my mother. That said, I am a little confused as to where the "magical thinking" comes in? Well written, no doubt, but it struck me as just a general sort of grief memoir rather than the life-changing work so many have touted it to be.
* Author Joan Didion has worked as a writer for both VOGUE and LIFE magazines
* There are a few spoilers for other books to be aware of in this book: namely her husband's novels DUTCH SHEA, JR. and NOTHING LOST, but also the play ALCESTIS and the film ROBIN & MARIAN starring Audrey Hepburn and Sean Connery.
On the surface, Emily Meckler leads the perfect life. She has three best friends, two loving parents, and the ideal setup at the Connecticut prep school where her father is the headmaster. Then the enigmatic Del Sugar enters her life, and Emily is immediately swept away-but her passionate relationship with Del is just the first of many things that aren't quite what they seem in Emily's life. As the lies she's been told start to unravel, Emily must set out to discover the truth, a journey that will lead her to question everything she thought she knew.
To the casual observer, Emily Meckler looks like she has pretty much everything going for her: good friends, loving parents, private school education.... but at night, Emily is having horrible nightmares involving out of control fires and walls of water. She can't figure out what these night terrors are stemming from and her parents are at a loss for a solution, other than sending her to the school therapist. Then a shift happens in Emily's life, brought about by the arrival of new student Del Sugar (yes, cringe now -- I know I did -- that's the name the author decided to plaster onto our main male love interest). Emily is warned by multiple people (including her father / academy headmaster) that Del is bad-boy-bad-news but of course the two find a way to get to know each other and Del convinces Emily he truly understands her inner turmoil (oh, and that they're totally meant to be). No surprise, in no time flat Del has Emily's once stable life in quite the pickle. Strangely though, her involvement with him does set her on the path to finding the root cause of her nightmares. The answers she finds disrupt all she thought she knew to be true and solid, in terms of her very existence.
My initial interest in this book mainly came from the main character struggling with sleep issues. As I have a sleep disorder myself, I was intrigued. But (my luck!) it seems that this plot element was really only used as a gimmick to hook readers in, as virtually no time or description is put into the nightmares themselves, other than a generic "ooh fire, oohhh so much water"... AAAND she's awake... and we're left to just accept that her very soul is shaken. Emily also seems to have very little issue with side effects of sleep deprivation. Sure she's a little sleepy here and there but that seems to be the extent of it.
No surprise, the primary focus is put on Emily's interest in Del... who is very possessive and manipulative with her but in fiction that makes him SOOO hot, right?! For a "bad boy" character, Del struck me as being a lot of talk more than anything. You get 100 pages into this book that's barely over 300 and very little has actually gone down. He is, however, a stereotypical jerk that I'd venture to say a fair majority of women have had experience with at least once in their life.
Scene after scene of Del straight up lying to Emily and trying to control all these aspects of her life, and Emily acknowledges here and there that she sort of recognizes it, but she adores him anyway... even though she notes he pretty consistently smells of sweat, beer, cigarettes and kerosene. Her words, verbatim: "The smell on him almost makes me want to gag." NOICE. LOL. The scene with the contacts -- Emily actually allowing Del to stick his fingers in her eyes and shift around her contacts just to say "I see parts of you you can't see..." NOOOO SIR. True love means you keep your dang fingers outta my eye sockets unless I have an eyeball literally dangling from my face (god forbid... just sayin').
To balance bad boy Del, readers are given over-the-top sweet, stand-up borderline boring guy Ethan to also vie for Emily's romantic attention. I'll admit, at the start of the story I was thinking with Ethan "Okay, this seems like a good guy for our girl" but his lack of virtually any edge had me changing my mind. Also, Emily's bland personality grated on me too much for me to care who got her in the end.
It seemed like SO much focus / detail was put on the most mundane aspects of the story. This was one of those ones where I was just waaaiiting for the plot to kick in already. In the end, literally NOTHING in this book was a surprise. No redeeming plot twists!