Give Us the Magic: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

In a matter of seconds, literary power couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne were finished. On the night of December 30, 2003, John fell silent at the dinner table, slumped over, and died. Their forty-year-old love affair was over, just weeks after their only daughter, thirty-eight-year old Quintana Roo Dunne was in the ICU with pneumonia. Didion writes the following:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in an instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. 

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s National Book award-winning account of a life fully (and enviously) lived and irrevocably changed in an instant.


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Jennifer: Tell me you finished.

Lara: I did. Go to Goodreads. The proof is there.

Jennifer: The reason this is important is that Lara made me read this book. For some reason, I had a strong aversion to it.

Lara: And let’s not forget that you made me read Moby Dick or that you still owe me at least two more books for it.

I had never read any Didion before this column. I had heard of her, and had this sense that she was pretty important in the literary world—but after reading this, it was more evident; I got the sense the reason this book was published is because she’s a famous writer. If I had written a book like this, in this fashion, clinically referenced, it never would have been published. This book wasn’t ANYTHING I expected it to be. I loved pieces of it. I am not sure how I feel about the book as a whole.

Jennifer: Well, okay. I need to tread very carefully here. First, I didn’t want to read this. I’ll tell you why in a minute. Second, I’ve only read one other book by her, and I know she’s über-respected. Third, no matter what I think about this book, I don’t want to undercut or dismiss the very real pain this woman has suffered. I don’t want to belittle her experiences. You just told me—and I actually didn’t know it—that her daughter, Quintana, died shortly after John died. (There’s this interesting article that suggests that Quintana’s death is linked to acute alcoholism and Didion turned her eyes away).

Lara: It definitely feels awkward to have any criticism of her work and, this book in particular, because of her profound loss. However, I do expect and want a book like this to leave me with a sense of connection; and a lot of The Year of Magical Thinking did not. The first nine chapters were too textbook-reference heavy. Like more for the medical community than for me. Yet I understand her need to go that route. I think it’s her father who advised her:

“Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature.

Information is control.”

Jennifer: I didn’t like this book, Lara. I didn’t want to read it because, in my opinion, the subject of death is inevitably metaphysical. One cannot properly deal with death unless one reckons (reckons?) with God Almighty or the lack of such a god. If the author is not dealing with the meaning of this life and then the death, what can she possibly say? You know, let me just be frank, my father was killed in a car accident in 2002 when I was thirty-four, and my parents were married for about thirty-five years—so, well, my mom did this, okay? When this happens, you’re dealing with these questions: Is there a God? And why did this happen?

My suspicion was that Didion would not deal with the loss of her husband of forty-freakin’ years on this level, and my suspicion was correct.

That’s why I didn’t want to read it. But there were many other things I didn’t like about this.

Lara: Well, you know I read it to complete a square on my Book Bingo card (there will be a Snotty Literati column on this, but it counted as A Book You Saw Someone Reading on TV: Alexis Bledel as Rory Gilmore on The Gilmore Girls). But I do see your point. And I also think spirituality and the big questions housed within can be personal. It turns out that Didion was born Episcopalian and is still a member of the church. However, she has said that she doesn’t believe there is a God who is personally interested in her. She has said she believes in geology, feeling more comfortable explaining the earth and how rivers and mountains came to be. For whatever that is worth.

I also see how your own experience would make this a non-desired read. Was it interesting, though, to just see another experience? Has you mother read it? Do you think she would want to?

Jennifer: No, she’d be bored. Yeah, it was interesting.

Well, I talked about booting you out of the literati for your lack of love for George Saunders. And you may want to boot me for my lack of Joan-love.

Lara: No booting; I don’t love Joan. I did like some of her revelations, though, that I am sure grieving spouses experience. Like when she won’t give away John’s clothes or shoes because he won’t have anything to wear when he comes back. That all of the activities she performed in putting John to rest failed to bring him back.

Jennifer: Which is another reason I didn’t like this book, and I think you’re right: it was published because she’s famous. That whole thing where she saves her dead husband’s clothes? They all do that, Lara. My father has been deceased for over a decade, and my mother still has a preserved mausoleum in the house. She nearly snapped my head and my aunt’s head off when we suggested she donate his clothes. About a year ago, I suggested that she should get a roommate. I believe she told me to fuck off.

Another thing that they all do: they recount the timeline ad nauseum. Trust me. There’s something that happens to one who suffers such a loss. They, understandably, try to make sense of it—so they go over the chronology. They do so obsessively. This is normal, but it’s common.

I actually remember this well. My mom kept going over the morning of the accident—what he did when he woke up, how he walked the dog, when he said this or that. It struck me then.

So I’m not surprised by Didion’s compulsive chronicling of the timeline—but it’s not the stuff of literature, you know?

Lara: Agreed. And this book is interesting because it’s intimate in topic, but isolating in its execution. Like written for herself, as her own therapy, and perhaps her other high society friends. I did like her prose however—when she wasn’t citing the The Merck Manual. Passages like this did me in:

“I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.

Nor did I want to finish the year.

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none.

I did not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen. My image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John will become more remote, even “mudgy,”… in fact this is already beginning to happen.”

And this:

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are alive ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make any of it easier to let go of them in the water.”

Both of these passages came at the end of the book, the last chapter, in fact. It was then—finally then!—that I felt Didion most opened up and was the most vulnerable.

Jennifer: Seriously. For such a long marriage—and anyone who stays married for that long deserves some hearty accolades—she’s pretty quiet about her love for that man.

Ooh-la-la. And it's the picture that my 9-year old son says I look like Quintana. -- Lara

Ooh-la-la. And it’s the picture which my 9-year-old son says I look like Quintana. — Lara

But the thing that bugged me the most—the most—was the remoteness from the wealth here.  You didn’t see Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, did you? We’re talking Cate Blanchett in that movie before the shit hits the fan. The astonishing wealth without any self-awareness—the scotch-and-sodas, the summers in Paris or Malibu, trips to Indonesia. Daisy Buchanan’s voice is full of money (from The Great Gatsby), as is Joan Didion’s. Money is fine—I’d like some very much—but the lack of awareness weirds me out. Which reminds me to tell you how much I loved Blue Jasmine.  Cate nails it, as does Alec Baldwin.

Tangential.  Sorry.

I do love the photo on the back of the book of Joan and her husband and daughter in Malibu in 1976. Ooh-la-la.

Get this:

“When we left for Paris Quintana and Gerry [the daughter and son-in-law] had been planning their first Thanksgiving dinner . . . They were using their wedding china. Quintana had come by to get my mother’s ruby crystal glasses. We had called them on Thanksgiving Day from Paris. They were roasting a turkey and pureeing turnips.”

Elsewhere, we hear of Quintana’s “simple wedding,” which had peacocks on the lawn.

My wedding was simple too. We had muffins from Costco.

We’ve never stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, though we’re taking a thirty-hour Amtrak train to Oklahoma for Christmas. Coach.

Lara: I got married in my mother’s backyard. And we catered chain restaurant Mexican—mini-chimis and the like—and that was “extravagant.” I failed to eat anything on the actual day and ended up throwing up on my wedding night. How’s that for “simple”?

Let me get back on track.

She clearly wasn’t aware of her wealth. What was more interesting to me was when she told John they “couldn’t afford” to go to Paris, when in fact they could and did, and it would be their last trip there together. Or when they were in Malibu and “couldn’t afford” to eat out at certain restaurants but they still ate out. I will admit the voyeur in me did love reading about their high society life. It was dreamlike.

Definitely a different world.

But loss is loss. And while Didion expresses some universal feelings and experiences, I wouldn’t recommend this as one of the better books on dealing with the loss of a spouse. I don’t think I would recommend it at all. A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas is much more accessible; it’s beautiful, actually. It reads like a love letter to her late husband. I felt like a book with “magical” in the title should read softer and more intimately than it did.

Jennifer: I agree with the magical thing. I kinda found John, the dead husband, pretty interesting.  She writes of him, “We were not having any fun, he had recently begun pointing out. I would take exception (didn’t we do this, didn’t we do that) but I had also known what he meant. He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living.”

Didion should’ve written more on this. Elsewhere, she points to John’s admiration of another couple they met once. The couple’s life of service impressed him. He hadn’t wanted for his life to be a waste.

Why doesn’t Didion write more on this? She’s got the talent.

Okay, I’m done.

My mom’s book would be better, though I’d need to edit it due to her atrocious potty mouth.

Lara: Now that I would like. We could call that column Snotty Potty-Mouthed Literati. Didion would cringe if she read that headline.

We’ll be back in November, hopefully giving thanks for the brilliance of Meg Wolitzer’s much-buzzed-about The Interestings.


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