Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Grrrr…. I hate it when I start a post and when the draft mysteriously disappears… Anyway.

I received this book through Bookmooch from a kind reader on the other side of the world, with a nice, if slightly subdued card: “Greetings from Adelaide South Australia. Hope you enjoy this book. I certainly did”. (If you happen to read this blog, mysterious Moocher, thank you again for sending this to me!)

At that time I did wonder a bit about the choice of word “enjoy” for a book about death and bereavement (the choice of card did seem very appropriate and reflected the melancholy tone of the book), and I did wonder why, if this person had enjoyed it, did she give it away?

This was my first brush with Didion and I expected to come back raving about it. Dorothy (whom I still resist calling Rebecca) did praise it. All the serious reviews were deferential. People called it powerful and moving. Yet I certainly wasn’t enthusiastic (poor choice of word again), and I didn’t quite “enjoy” it.

For the sake of clarity, I should add that Didion is practically unknown in France: only Democracy had been translated before the huge success of The Year of Magical Thinking got the publishers to translate Play it as it lays in 2007.

Grief and bereavement are uniquely personal subjects, but at the same time deeply universal. Everyone has lost someone close and dear, every spouse can relate to the horror of losing one’s life companion, but it’s truly a humbling and lonely experience per se. I expected literature to come to the rescue in this case. I expected to be moved, to empathize with her, but unfortunately Didion’s dry writing, her refusal to be emotional, her need to rehash clinical details and many, many details of her life with her husband John Dunne kept me at bay. Of course, this is precisely what she’s addressing in this book: this magical thinking aimed at avoiding grief, at continuously thinking her beloved husband as alive, as if he were coming back any minute.

I think many people may have been disturbed by the intellectual, rational side of her book. This is no spiritual book, she doesn’t take comfort in any religious belief as tragedy strikes her again and again. Perhaps because I’m a non-religious European, this didn’t disturb me and I only realized this after finishing the book. But to me, this is more of a personal journal than something destined to be widely published and praised, especially for those who don’t know Didion through other books.

It was an interesting read, but I think I’m going to mooch this one away. Perhaps with a similar card tucked in the cover.

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