Grief memoirs are very much hit-or-miss, and can range from being effective and moving to bland and indulgent. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a disjointed and at times stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature of grief and the process of mourning. While it may serve as a self-help book to readers seeking to identify with her loss, the novel reads more like scattered thoughts of a journal and lacks the direction and unity required in a novel.
The story opens with Joan’s recollection of the night of John’s death, when the couple was preparing to have dinner, having come home from visiting their daughter in the ICU. John suddenly dies mid-sentence of a cardiac arrest, and Joan is left to deal with her grief as well as the persisting illness of her only child. The narrative regularly flashes back to that night, exploring different layers of her mental and emotional reactions.
As a means of coping, Didion does anthropological research on mourning practices, particularly the coping mechanism of magical thinking. This mechanism involves stalling the readjustment to life after loss; for example, when she brings herself to give away John’s clothes and personal belongings, she is unwilling to give away his shoes, because he would need him when he returned. When she begins sleeping alone at night, she leaves the lights on as a precaution.
While Didion’s purpose is to guide readers through her process of grief, somehow this process never quite takes off, as the constant quoting of medical studies on grief and the various self-help literatures she sought quickly becomes repetitious, and the narrative begins to meander as Didion lends more regard to personal contemplation and loses her sense of direction. Readers who seek out this book as a means of self-help could have difficultly connecting with Didion’s detached writing style, which lends more detail to place names and locations than to emotions. Instead, her grief is portrayed in her actions, such as her clinging to John’s belongings after his death.
I wouldn’t be quick to pick up this book after suffering a loss, as I had trouble connecting with it. Avid readers of Joan Didion, however, may be accustomed enough to her writing style to become emotionally involved in her story.