the year of magical thinking | a book review

from my bookstagram

from my bookstagram

last year i made a belated new year’s resolution to talk more about the things i read instead of simply rating them out of five stars. i’ve learned since then that it’s much easier for me to accomplish something if i don’t ~officially~ commit to it first – i know that sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s apparently how productivity works for me. for example, i decided to read 66 books last year on goodreads and failed, whereas this year i lowered the bar to 36 books, and i’ve already finished six even though we’re only halfway through january (!!!). hence, no real ‘2017 new year’s resolutions’ post from me this time.

2017 is the year i want to read more nonfiction – both books and essays – and poetry. i’ve had a surprisingly good time with nonfiction in the past. one book that’s influenced me the most is peter ostwald’s biography of glenn gould, which i read two years ago. last summer i read joan didion’s slouching towards bethlehem, “how to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later” by philip k. dick, and marjane satrapi’s persepolis, which were all amazing reads. i want to continue this trend and learn more about everything – politics and race and food and music and finance and botany and more.

the year of magical thinking was the first book i read this year. i don’t know much about joan didion’s background besides what i’ve learned from STB and this novel, but her writing is as clear and detailed as ever. she guides you through her year of magical thinking after her husband dies, and her language indicates that: allusions to poetry and myths, her unwillingness to donate her husband’s shoes (because then he wouldn’t be able to wear them if he returned), the vortex in her memories that always leads her back to her living husband and healthy child.

didion’s certainly privileged. you can feel it through the places she’s been and the people she knows, but as much as that might disconnect the reader (as it disconnected me, at first), she doesn’t rub it in your face. she’s relating her personal experience with grief, and if her closest friends and clearest memories happen to be celebrities and glitzy cities, she only mentions it as context before focusing on the topic at hand: grief, or mourning, or the warning signs she thinks she should have heeded before december 30, 2003.

when i read TYOMT i was reminded of bluets by maggie nelson. didion does with grief what nelson failed to do with the color blue. while i thought nelson’s writing was lovely, it seemed to lack something – coherence or resolution, i still can’t say. when i finished bluets i felt as though the author hadn’t really written the book, that there was another version of bluets that hadn’t been published yet (but would be, eventually), and this version was just an outline. nelson drops facts about the color blue, litters her segments with allusions and beautifully-styled sentences, but ultimately goes back to a topic (her love life?) that isn’t really about the color at all.

on the other hand, didion picks apart the concepts of grief and mourning and death, and she doesn’t skim over topics the way nelson does. she explains medical terms that doctors tell her about her daughter, quintana. she returns repeatedly to the night john gregory dunne slumps over dinner, a movement so sudden that didion first registers it as a joke. (you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.) she studies the literature of grief, not just the novels and the poetry and the rituals, but also the medical papers and the psych studies and the etiquette handbooks, how society currently encourages hiding sorrow as something shameful and perceives grief as a form of self-pity.

the documentation in TYOMT is unbelievable. how many notebooks did didion keep? she and dunne seem to have made records of nearly everything – planners, notebooks, marginalia, kitchen books, microsoft word documents, a box with lines three-year-old quintana had said. it frightens me. when will i experience that grief? i can anticipate it, i can imagine it, but how broken will i be when it finally happens to me? have i written enough to leave a record of whoever has left? have i recorded enough of my life, shared with theirs, to somehow resurrect them?

this is a wonderful read, objectively, but it becomes a necessary one when you have experienced devastating loss yourself. simply reading TYOMT made me feel an overwhelming sadness – i tend to empathize, maybe overly so, with whatever i’m reading. however, i think my timing was off with TYOMT. i loved it, but i didn’t need it. i haven’t yet experienced the death of a loved one. this book offers the most to those who are in the process of grieving, offering not closure (“i realize as i write this that i do not want to finish this account,” didion says) but an exploration of an experience the bereaved alone feel.

4.8/5 stars. you should definitely read TYOMT when you get the chance (and listen to this song). if you have read it, what are your thoughts?