The Year of Magical Thinking is not something I can fully put into words. Reading it is a truly humbling experience. It is more than just a book; it allows for a deep examination of the human mind in a troubled state.
One of the most marvelous abilities of Didion is that she forces the reader to strongly consider the shallowness of sanity (see p. 7). This book is a lesson in survival, but not the Boy Scout kind. It made my life flash before my eyes — past, present, and future. It forced me to be introspective. I laughed aloud at points, but also had to set the book aside to avoid tears. It is so human, almost too human, too real, but also too good to not read.
Her tale is deeply personal and reflective. I read the first couple chapters a few months ago, for a college course, and I was motivated to write about my own life because of it. A mark of a talented writer is the ability to inspire other writers. In that regard, I aspire to be like Joan Didion. It was a true test of my will that I was able to put the book on hold until I finished final exams.
Thematically, The Year of Magical Thinking explores loss, grief and mourning. I’d often seen the latter two as one in the same, but she writes, “Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention” (p.143). She is writing to understand her own grief, and notes examples from literature, popular culture and religion that resonate with her, such as, “I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual,” as C.S. Lewis wrote.
I found myself relating to her not only through her grief, but also through personality. She writes,
Why do you always have to be right.
Why do you always have to have the last word.
For once in your life just let it go (p. 141).
These questions are asked by others, but echo in her mind. They also stand as barriers to working through the loss of her husband. They made me consider what other barriers are built from this level of perfectionism — this need to constantly remain what she calls “a cool customer.”
In a moment of chaos, she writes,
“I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?” (p. 16).
Like Didion, I also write to discover my own thoughts. She asks, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?” (p. 162). For me, I’ve found the answer is often “yes.” She also writes, “I am a writer. Imagining what someone would say or do comes to me as naturally as breathing” (p. 196). It is so rare to find someone recognizing the conversations we all play out in our heads. But especially writers, those with wild imaginations, allow it to happen constantly. It’s a feeling I know well. One of the most incredible elements of this book is that she truly lays out her mind in paper and ink. She’s not capturing her thoughts to be controlling. In a way, it seems writing is one of the only ways she lets herself lose control; writing allows her to be free.
Didion also reminded me that even the littlest of details can stay with you forever:
“His eyes. His blue eyes. His imperfect blue eyes” (p. 40).