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Thursday, July 23, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: The Year of Magical Thinking

This week, my group met to discuss Joan Didion's 2005 National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction, The Year of Magical Thinking. The plot as described by the folks over at Reading Group Guides is:
...a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage --- and a life, in good times and bad --- that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later --- the night before New Year's Eve --- the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma.

This powerful book is Didion's attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.
My group is made up of women from their late 50s into their 80s. Many of them have lost a spouse, 2 most notably during the years in which they have been part of the discussion group. Both felt that The Year of Magical Thinking was the best book about the grieving process they had read. The entire discussion was like a giant therapy session; in a good way.

Some general comments we had about the book.
  • She hits grief right on
  • You can tell she writes for a living, the words were beautiful
  • It is a compelling read even though it is a serious subject
  • The use of humor was very "healing."
  • She effectively used the passive voice; it worked because you are not in charge with illness and death.
  • With a death or illness of a loved one, it doesn't matter if you are rich or poor
  • When a couple is as close as John and Joan were, it is hard to go on; this book gave her a reason to go on.
  • Didion puts death on center stage in this book. You cannot hide from it.
  • She wasn't writing about John, she was writing about herself.
  • This was not a tract about the mourning process, it was personal, full of honesty and isolation.
We talked about Didion's use of repetition throughout the book. We all thought it was realistic. While you are grieving you do repeat things. It is comforting. The repetition leads her to healing.

One of our members works in the funeral industry, singing and playing for funerals. However, she pointed out that this book was odd to her. All of her work on funerals is within the context of faith and this book was not about faith at all. Didion refers to religion but she does not confront her husband's death in any religious context.

We also discussed where the turning point in Didion's grief was. When does she stop thinking that her husband will come back and accept he is gone for good? We decided that when she went back to work, covering the Republican primary, in her own city, where her memories of Dunne were the strongest, that she was going to be fine. She re-entered her own world. And by the end she has come to terms with the fact that she is a widow.

Readalikes: People may want to read Didion and Dunne's works after reading The Year of Magical Thinking. Others may want similar memoirs by writers about their marriages and the death's of their spouses. Two very good ones are About Alice by Calvin Trillin and An Elegy for Iris by John Bayley.

Joan Didion has also adapted The Year of Magical Thinking into a play. It will be staged here in Chicago in January and February of 2010 at the Court Theater.

Some bittersweet fiction about long relationships such as The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer would be good suggestions.

Note for next month, we will be meeting in the 4th week of August instead of the third to discuss Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear.

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