The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s memoir about her husband’s death, an even that happened at a time when the couple was already dealing with the health crisis of their only daughter, newly married and in an ICU. Months after the death, the daughter would be back in the hospital having surgery to relieve some bleeding in her brain.
That is as objective as I can be about this brilliant book. I found myself devouring it because I could understand Didion’s response, her reactions, her ways and means of coping. Not because, thank goodness, I had any relevant experience even remotely close to her own feelings of loss and grief. But her turning to words, to poetry, to reading as a coping mechanism made sense to me.
As much so as those moments of madness where maybe she wasn’t quite holding onto the reality of her world to the same degree as before. And why would she? Why should she hold onto a world where her husband of forty years could die in the living room while she prepared their dinner only a few short hours after they had visited their daughter who was in a coma? What kind of world is it that finally allows a woman to have the funeral for her husband after their only daughter has emerged from the coma only to have her child collapse when the healing is finally (maybe) going to begin?
When I began reading I inevitably thought of C S Lewis’ A Grief Observed, drawing parallels. Both authors are devout Christians. Both lose the love of their lives. Both are literati, bound to seek solace in the pages of books. There the similarities ended. I liked Lewis; I adore Didion. I cannot explain accurately why this should be and I suppose someone will someday write a paper in some college course, comparing and contrasting the two documents to better understand the differences in how the two authors approached the writing of their own pain.
Even when Didion quotes from Lewis, the difference is hinted at. Lewis observed his grief through a filter of intellectualizing and spiritualizing. In his book the pain of loss is hinted at but assuaged by the presence of faith, of hope, of the promises he found in the Bible. Didion, on the other hand, is quietly imploding, going through the motions of her life in hopes of regaining some semblance of balance. Her grief is keening, is tearing a hole in cloth over the heart to expose the rawness of her experience. She tries to intellectualize, to understand through reading what it is she is feeling, but she cannot because what she is feeling is so much more than words.
I suspect that somewhere between the lines there is so much more than her words could measure, so much more pain and memory that she never allowed to become concretized into syllables. I only suspect this because I can’t imagine that Didion, with her seeming transparency, would ever fully expose herself or her loved ones on the page. Perhaps I am wrong. I also suspect that this is a book I will find myself turning to again, someday, because her grief, her mourning, I understand. Lewis, who seems to observe from a reserved distance, doesn’t embrace the absolutely rawness of Didion’s experience and it is this passion that I know resonates more fully with my own.