The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Not having it in front of me now, I can’t skim through and remember the precise points that caught me when I was reading this. I can recall that I appreciated the elements that returned throughout the book, waves washing back over, appropriate for a memoir of grief. I poke through a few reviews to jog the memories, noticing that a few describe a lack of “inwardness” or distance from emotions; this one in particular critiques it as “oddly lacking.” I would argue it’s not odd at all. Didion herself describes the hospital social worker’s declaration of her as a “cool customer” with what I felt was full awareness of this distance.

They took me into the curtained cubicle where John lay, alone now. They asked if I wanted a priest. I said yes. A priest appeared and said the words. I thanked him. They gave me the silver clip in which John kept his driver’s license and credit cards. They gave me the cash that had been in his pocket. They gave me his watch. They gave me his cellphone. They gave me a plastic bag in which they said I would find his clothes. I thanked them. The social worker asked if he could do anything more for me. I said he could put me in a taxi. He did. I thanked him. “Do you have money for the fare?” he asked. I said I did, the cool customer. When I walked into the apartment and saw John’s jacket and scarf still lying on the chair where he had dropped them when we came in from seeing Quintana at Beth Israel North (the red cashmere scarf, the Patagonia windbreaker that had been the crew jacket on “Up Close and Personal”), I wondered what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?

I would almost go so far to say that this distance, this detachment, is half the point of what she is saying here, almost questioning why it is so. Sometimes that is the challenge: digging deeper and deeper only to find the heart of it is still remote. How far inside can it go?

… Now a few weeks after finishing this book, I learned that Didion’s daughter Quintana died shortly before it was published. Didion said she would not revise the book.