Friday, February 02, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

I've been exchanging email messages with someone about the problems that arise when a book or an author is over-hyped. Initially the conversation was about Zadie Smith, but I could continue it in relation to this book, by Joan Didion. My expectations were really really high for this book, which won the 2005 National Book Award, and received so many glowing reviews. So it's difficult for me to tell if my disappointment in it is justified or not. Maybe it's just not as unique and beautiful as I was led to expect, and thus I am disappointed.

If you haven't been paying attention, this is Didion's memoir of the year following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack, The book is very sad. Didion and Dunne enjoyed a long, productive marriage, and Didion is devastated by his death. During the year following his death, their only daughter suffers from a string of serious illnesses, causing Didion to spend months at hospitals and rehab centers dealing with her daughter's issues as she struggles to come to terms with her husband's death.

The book works best when it describes the day-to-day reality of the life of the surviving spouse and the job of caring for a sick family member. I was less interested in the parts where Didion describes her memories in a kind of cinematic, impressionistic way. I felt disconnected from these sections, and a little put off by the name dropping. Was I supposed to know who all these people were that she was talking about?

Didion reveals a lot in this book, including her bouts of magical thinking; for example, she is unable to part with her husband's shoes, because, when he comes back he's going to need them. I read several reviews that made much of this revelation, and its power. I wonder if any of these reviewers have ever experienced the death of a close relation. I think this kind of magical thinking is very common. For months after my mother's sudden death I kept her purse (with all its contents) in a safe place, just as she left it, because of course she would need it – every woman needs her purse. I'm not trying to diminish the value of Didion's words, but only use this to argue that it's perhaps another example of over-hype. I was glad to read about her magical thinking because it reminded me of my own, not because it was something so strange and revealing.

I didn't find the book to be "utterly shattering" (New York Times), "thrilling and engaging" (New York Times again), "heartrending" (Christian Science Monitor) "searing" (Los Angeles Times) or "an unforgettable lament" (Chicago Sun-Times). But I did like this article in Salon.

(Book 5, 2007)


Anonymous said...

And it all begs the question of whether overhyping leads one to have a different opinion of the book. For instance, I was SOOOOO disappointed with Never Let Me Go. But I can't tell whether I would have liked it more if I didn't know anything when I read it.

Becky Holmes said...

That's exactly what I wonder about also. Might I have enjoyed this book more if I wasn't just waiting for the payoff that didn't come?

Becky Holmes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I need to read this book because -- somehow -- it's been turned into a Broadway play, being directed by David Hare. (Indeed, I think it opens this week.) I'm writing about Hare as a playwright, so I'm interested to see Hare as a director, too.

Back in my college professor days, I regularly taught Didion's collection _Slouching to Bethlehem_ as an example of fabulous non-fiction prose. I figure even if _Magical Thinking_ doesn't live up to its hype, it will still be very well-written.

Also: Am I correct in my thought that her daughter finally died too? (And wasn't the kid named 'Quintana Roo,' after another rather magical moment her 'rents had in Mexico?)

Poor Joan.

Becky Holmes said...

I read about the play. I think it might be more powerful than the book. Yes, the daughter eventually died. I was sad about that. I've thought about this book several times in the weeks since I finished it. That's a sign that it made more of an impression on me than I originally thought.

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