10 September 2008

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

A strange sequence of events led me to pick up this book - I had heard of it before, but I had absolutely no desire to read it. By the time I picked it up, I was absolutely exhausted and miserable (a long story in itself, but let me just say this - don't EVER take US Airways. May they sink into bankruptcy as soon as possible - and if my experience with them is anything to go by, then they undoubtedly will.). I don't know if that played a role in my enjoyment of the book, but it's worth noting, I suppose.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's account of a really, really bad year. Her daughter is in a coma, her husband dies, her daughter recovers then falls ill again - it's awful. In the space of a week, the two closest people in her life are gone (or nearly so). The book is basically a series of reflections written later, thinking back on this time in her life. It's not exactly an appealing premise, hence my initial lack of interest in reading it, but oddly enough, I found myself absolutely absorbed. I've never read anything by Didion before (any recommendations?), but she is a marvelous writer. Her prose is highly evocative and incredibly moving. There's an intimate feel to the book that isn't just a result of its highly personal subject matter. 

It's strange to enjoy reading such an incredibly accurate evocation of grief. There's a bizarre pleasure in the sense of recognition you have, thinking, my god, that's exactly how I felt, and remembering this awful time in your own life, marveling at how similar it was to what Didion is describing. I've discussed it with various people over the last few days, and the general consensus seems to be that it comes out of a comfort in solidarity and similarity. It's nice to know that other people are just like you. 

I think the other pleasure to this book is that it's a work in progress - the author is seeking wisdom rather than offering it, thinking through her experiences in order to better understand them herself. So there are quotes from other thinkers and writers discussing love and loss and grief, and brief bits from medical journals, making the book into a kind of tapestry of ideas. Ultimately, there's not much in the way of a plot arc or trajectory, but you don't really feel the lack. I guess the experience of reading the book is kind of like having a long, in-depth and rather intense conversation with a really close friend - it's a kind of bittersweet feeling, simultaneously sad and invigorating. I suppose there is a kind of catharsis involved as well. In any case, a very good book.

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