Although I am not a fan of memoirs, I found Didion’s memoir of the first year after the loss of her husband both sad and illuminating.
Sad, because, nine months ago, we lost my beloved father. I’ve had to watch my Mom grieve the end of one of life’s grand love affairs – the passionate love affair between my parents, which lasted nearly 60 years.
Illuminating because, at times, Didion expresses her personal grieving in such a universal way that her loss became my Mother’s loss. Didion gave a voice to the process of grief that my Mom, a widow, is experiencing and which I, a still-married daughter, have not yet experienced.
That Dunne brought deep meaning into Didion’s life is unquestionable; her struggle to control or somehow change the events of that year, at times, makes fascinating reading because one senses that her emotions, her sense of loss, are so intense that if she touched on them, she probably wouldn't cope.
But, while reading, I was struck by another level of sadness: at the hospital, which declared her husband dead, the social worker said of Didion’s reaction, “It’s okay; she’s a pretty cool customer.”
I constantly found myself asking, where ARE her emotions? What IS she feeling?
She could, and did, articulate the practical details of her year of grieving in microscopic detail, but there were times when I found her determined and strong-willed focus on medical facts, and the logistics of Dunne’s death and her daughter’s illness, disconcerting. Understandable, yes, and sad because it suggested a desperate attempt at mastering her overwhelming loss, but still disconcerting. She is, as the social worker said, “a pretty cool customer,” and she manages to keep her deepest emotions very private.
The title of the book explains a lot: THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. “Magical” to me has a wondrous, positive connotation; the word implies exciting events that take the ordinary and somehow transform them into the extraordinary. I only understood how Didion could apply it to the year following the death of her husband, a year in which her only child lay dying, when I looked up the meaning in the dictionary for this review.
Rather than the magic in her title meaning ‘an enchanting quality or phenomenon’ or ‘wonderful, exciting,’ the MAGICAL in Didion’s title relies more on the definition of “magic” as ‘the supposed art of influencing the course of events by the occult control of nature or of the spirits.’
Because, to me, that’s where the sadness in this book really lies: Didion’s desperate desire to influence, to change by some power she didn’t have, the death of her husband. And, even when, she couldn’t “bring him back,” she still had to go through the process of accepting that death is a part of life. That no matter how privileged, or intelligent, or talented, or lucky one is, no matter how many famous names one can drop, death comes to us all: “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” (Shakespeare, Cymbeline, Act IV, Sc ii)
For Didion, there was no magic in her year of grieving. No amount of intellectualising her grief could change that ordinary moment when, at the dinner table, her beloved husband died. He was gone and, to resume her life, she had to “relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead” and move into a future beyond grief and beyond mourning.