Where Else Is There? Reviewing Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”

A stylizaed triptych of Joan Didion, author of "The Year of Magical Thinking", in sepia, blue, and orange-red hues.

Actor Keanu Reeves, when asked in an interview the question of what happens when we die, truthfully responded with, ‘I know that the ones who love us will miss us.’ Reeves’ response, while honest, was likely not what the audience expected. Many, unless having experienced the death of a loved one, never conceptualize it happening, as it remains a far-off abstraction. As a 19-year-old, I didn’t think about ‘being gone forever,’ or ‘being missed.’ Romanticized in literature, it’s not uncommon for thoughts on death to change over time. From the young artist who wishes to be immortal (often tragically dying young, e.g., Keats, Shelley, Plath, Van Gogh) to the older adult hoping she can easily pass away in her sleep—these perspectives will shift with age.

In March 2012, my beloved orange cat, Apollo, died suddenly while at the vet. He’d had some obstruction in his gut, but in no way did I think my dropping him off that morning would be the last time I’d ever see him alive. Struck with heartache, I called my mom who recommended I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She informed me that this was an excellent memoir on grief and that she’d just read it in her book club. While reluctant to read anything recommended by my mom’s book club given its propensity for convention, I knew of Didion’s work and that she wasn’t the typical MFA writer. So, I placed that book on my mental ‘to-read’ pile and then didn’t think about it until 11 years later.

Then, in July of 2023, my mom passed away suddenly after a long health battle, wherein she’d spent 16 days in an induced coma. The details I’ll not get into, as that is a story in itself, but upon word of her passing I immediately went to the nearby Half Price Books to purchase Joan Didion’s memoir. I bought the only remaining copy, and I began reading before I could allow myself to cry. Afterwards, I spoke out loud and said, ‘I finally read it, Mom. It only took me 11 years to get to it.’ Doing so was not only nurturing but also needed. As example:

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.

The ‘magical thinking’ to which the title refers is the inability to emotionally accept that one’s loved one is permanently gone from this world, and so we ‘magically think’ that they will return. Joan Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly in their living room while he was speaking mid-sentence. Upon arrival of the ambulance, Didion came to learn that her husband had passed on account of a heart condition. Afterwards, and even following his autopsy, she told herself that she couldn’t get rid of his shoes in case he came back. What will he wear?

The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir that succeeds on several levels, most notably the writing. Notice how in the above excerpt there is no ‘Joyce Carol Oatesean’ forced emotion larding the sentences with clichés informing the reader how they should feel. Rather, Didion allows the moments to unfold naturally and succinctly, wherein the sadness is there if one chooses to feel it. In contrast, had I read this book at the time my mom recommended it, in 2012 rather than 11 years later, I doubt it would have resonated as much. (For one, the book represents what some might call a ‘fairy tale life’ where writers get to live between California and New York, and then upon completion of a book, it ‘magically’ gets on the NYT Bestseller list. Holy dogshit. Sign me up for this life, will you?)

This memoir is not only about the grief involving her husband John’s death but also that of their daughter, Quintana. Throughout much of the book Quintana remains on a ventilator, then once off the ventilator suffers a fall resulting in a head injury, among a myriad of additional health problems until her death in 2005, at the age of 39, while Didion was on tour. Then, what of these flood of memories? How does one manage to even begin to sort them? They say that grief comes in waves, and this part is true. Not necessarily ‘ups and downs’ but more so in ‘pouches’ of emotion that hit and then retreat. Something small could trigger it unexpectedly. What then?

Mostly, The Year of Magical Thinking involves the what next part. Not the years later, but the immediately after which we must painfully endure. It is this immediately after that is most agonizing as we also attempt to process a future without our loved one’s presence. Since my mother’s passing, I still get an inkling to call her. Every so often I will visit a small town that she and I used to frequent and I imagine—or wish, rather, that I just might see her. There is no advice present, only various ways one can come to accept. As Joan Didion mentions near the end:

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 to live 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 it any easier to let go of him in the water.

Letting go is the hardest part, which ultimately requires a process. Their loss disturbs us, as we think how they live on only in memory. There’s no protocol on how long grieving is supposed to last, and no one is ever instructed on just how to do it. As of this writing, I have written two poems about my mom, and I go about my days as I am able. I exercise, I go to work, I write. I can’t call her and tell her what I am feeling. Instead, I speak to her out loud, informing her what I think. That I am sorry for all those fights I picked. But this feels like a fraudulent substitute. The Year of Magical Thinking might not be a book for you to read just yet—like me, you may have to wait until you are ready. But when you are, it will be there.

Death is something so common, so universal—it is difficult to imagine how something so ordinary could be so painful. Does it ever get better or do we just get used to it? What does time do but acquire us? Mom, I finally read it. I love you. I wish I could share this review with you. We live within our moments as our motives become us. Where else is there?

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