Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Book #29 The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking

This book for me was a first. I read it and when I had finished I had utterly no idea how on earth to review it, because of the juxtaposition between the sensitive subject matter and my reaction to it. I had a sense that in criticising this book in any way, I was somehow a bad person, but as a review, I still have to be honest about what I thought of it.

The book is Didion's account of the first year following her husbands death, after he suffers a heart attack at home the day before New Years Eve. Throughout the following year their daughter Quintana suffers several episodes of ill health, and in fact also died shortly before the books' publication, though Didion chose not to update her manuscript to reflect this.

Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne were both writers and so I guess I expected something special here, I at least expected her thinking to be magical given the title, her words on the experience of grief to be moving and perhaps inspiring. But...........

It's cold. The whole book, it's very remote and detached. It's short, and repetitive, filled with quotes from other people's work on the nature of grief and lines from other people's poems, which if removed would leave only anecdotes that would be of interest to family members and the same stories repeated more than once.
It is like a collection of jumbled extracts from a diary, there is no cohesive narrative, and it is not what I expected: an insightful poetic reflection on the nature of death and loss, more a list of facts, an essay. It is much more essay than memoir.

It feels terrible to say that a book by a woman about the death of her husband is a bad book, but it is, and she even comes across badly as a person, showing off her contacts and lifestyle. At some point she writes that having when she read the memoir of D.H Lawrence's widow she felt she was morbid and self pitying, and you certainly can't accuse Didion of that.She doesn't even seem to experience the known stages of grief.

When thinking about how I would review this book I found a review on Amazon by A.Ross which said

"No doubt I am being churlish to some degree for criticizing Didion's portrayal of her experience. It's her life, her tragedy, and she certainly has every right to represent it however she would like to. However, placing it in the commercial realm makes it subject to comment, and my own feeling is that its simply not a very good book. That said, there are glimpses here and there of sharp writing and analysis which makes me think I might like one of her past collections of essays. Still, I can't imagine anyone going through the loss of a loved one would find this book helpful or illuminating in any way"

and I cannot help but concur.

You are left with the feeling that if this were the writing of an ordinary widow with an ordinary husband it would never have been printed, and the reason that it was is because Didion and Dunne were respected on the literary scene and those around the literary scene would be interested in their story because of who they were. This genuinely does feel like something of limited interest to friends and family and not something which would resonate with widows and those grieving everywhere, a lesson in how to love, lose and live on.

Not a year of magical thinking, a year of banal repetitive thinking. But I still feel guilty for criticising it given that it's about a man dying etc.. 4/10

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