Tuesday, March 7

Doo Wah Didion

I remember writing a short story, never finished, which began:

Her immediate thought upon hearing that her husband was dead: "I think I have a book about that."

I've been reading that book this week.

Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir of bereavement: Didion lost both her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana, within the same awful year. Her daughter’s death occurred after the book was finished, but her hospitalization and severe illness is covered here with all the anguish and worry any parent would feel, especially in light of the sudden unexpected death of the other parent.

This is not exactly monthly book club stuff, though I suppose there will be group sales to bereavement support groups the world over. For Didion is writing here not a mere catalog of her own grief, but the universality of her experience as documented by observers from the medical community to Emily Post. (Emily seems the most aware and astute of the observers; her advice on how to deal with bereavement the most practical and correct.)

It is clear that Didion is devastated by the loss of her husband, and far be it from me to argue with her grief or her extremely lucid and frank account of it. But Joan Didion is more than a grieving widow, she is Joan Didion, a New York erudite somebody, and how that somebody-ness permeates this book is truly distracting.

Her literary agent (who is her husband’s agent too) comes over the night of the death to help. This agent’s help is to call the New York Times obituary writer personally to let him know what has happened. Joan then has the presence of mind to realize that, of course, the LA Times should be called, too: God forbid they should find out Dunne has died from reading it in the NYT.

Memories fill this book: house hunting in Honolulu and deciding that owning would not be the same as hoteling...posing on the back deck of the house in Malibu with John and Quintana for People Magazine...thinking back on poems they both liked, including one composed by Earl McGrath on the occasion of their fifth anniversary.

It occurs to me that this writerly glamour may be just what a book like this needs in order to be palatable. Any reader could hardly stand a book on this subject poorly written and by a person unable to afford the casket. Perhaps these distractions allow us to be a part of Didion's experience, even as she feels nothing but loss and misery. Yet our sympathy for Didion is hampered by the cushion of her physically and intellectually plush surroundings. She seems to take for granted not only her economic privilege, but more importantly the companionship of her own fine mind.

Nevertheless, when this awful day happens for me, when I lose my husband (and as he his 23 years my senior the likelihood that he will go first is great) I hope I will remember that “I have a good book about this.” Didion’s memoir is as intelligent and honest a guide to my own sorrow and healing as I can hope to have.


  1. Of all the nagging fears that ruin our days and keep us up at night, I would safely wager that the fear of death is paramount.

    However, that fact to me is not terrifying. I know that my stay here on earth is time-limited. I derive a sort of comfort knowing that I ought to laugh more and worry less.

    I do not intend for the last thought on my death bed to be: I spent all this time worrying about things I cannot change and didn't enjoy the things I could.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I lost by parents within 90 days of each other almost exactly, three years ago.

    I will read this. Thanks for calling my attention to it.

  3. Anonymous4:59 PM

    Fine review, Blue Gal.

    Sometime in the distant past, I mentioned on my blog that it isn't my death that scares me, but illness. But the death of my loved ones -- my wife and son especially -- scares the crap out of me. It didn't help that for the first seven years of our marriage, we were death-obsessed. Even though I'm thankful those days are past, I never forget that it would take nothing more than a twist of fate, a bit of bad luck to put us back there once again.

    What I find most interesting, based on your review, is the fact Didion shows relatively little insight into her own unique circumstances.

  4. Well, Doug, she tells her story, which is what she is really good at, btw, but yeah, I think she is perhaps hiding behind her own mental adroitness in this one.

    I was about to say "we can't blame her for wanting some privacy in her grief" but heck, she went out and wrote a National Book Award winner about it (and went on a book tour, too) so how much privacy does she want? Her interview on Fresh Air was very good, too, and is available online at the url below:


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  6. I just realized tonight that you aren't on my blogroll because I did the blogroll link wrong....Sounds like an amazing book...thanks...

    ( also thanks for going over to jp and giving some support...very nice)

  7. Hi,
    I'm glad you found my blog (how did you?) because I really enjoyed reading your review of the book. I would like to link it to my series, probably on Friday when I post the last segment. I just finished the book today--I need to make a few adjustments to what you read in my first post. She is a fascinating person. I'm amazed, in fact, that she can get outside the beautiful mind and mind-boggling society she keeps in order to get such a steady flow of universal truth on the page. What a writer!
    Thanks for coming by. There is more on the series later tonight, then through Friday. Tomorrow I'll dig more into Didion's book. I'll be hanging out a bit at your place tomorrow to. It looks interesting.

  8. It is a wonderful book. I first heard about it in Oprah magazine, she had an interview in it.
    It gave me a lot of insight into how others deal with crisis and live with loss. Very memorable.

  9. Thanks for the review, BlueGal. I've had this book on my wish list ever since it came out. It was my idea of Christmas holiday reading, but Greatest Husband opted to give me the wild river adventures of Teddy Roosevelt instead - a book with a slightly different feel to it.
    I stopped reading Didion years ago because her angst + my angst = scary, unbearable angst. But, having lost my father and several close friends, I feel there is an imperative to revisit JD at this time in my life. Now, for sure, I will do so.


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