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Reviewed by:
  • The Year of Magical Thinking
  • Sandra M. Gilbert (bio)
Joan Didion . The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 227 pp. Hardcover, $23.95.

As any theorist of autobiography knows—and indeed as any halfway introspective memoirist is at least partly aware—even the most apparently artless memoirs have plots and subplots, just as plays and novels do. Not surprisingly, therefore, in The Year of Magical Thinking, the consummate stylist Joan Didion has produced a memoir whose plot is intricately enmeshed with its dramatic subplot. The plot focuses on the sudden, unexpected death of the author's husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the year of "magical thinking" in which she mourned him even while refusing to believe that he would never come back. The subplot centers on the mortal illness of the couple's daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, who died not long after the manuscript was completed. Didion's compelling narrative and her anguished meditations on grief move with a grim, inexorable logic between the two deaths, one that has already occurred and one that is deeply (and openly) dreaded.

As someone who has both grieved and theorized the processes of grieving and their cultural expressions in modes of mourning, I recognize on nearly every one of Didion's pages the stigmata of sorrow. Most obviously, the phrase "magical thinking" summarizes the initial (and overwhelming) madness of grief, especially what is called "unanticipated grief"—a mental state marked by a shocked refusal to accept the absolute disappearance of the beloved and a simultaneous, perhaps paradoxical quest to uncover explanations for an absence in whose reality the bereaved does not fully believe. But "magical thinking," which psychoanalysts would no doubt define as denial or disbelief, comes to permeate even more aspects of the mourning process as the griever struggles to acknowledge and accommodate the multiple, often devastating ways in which the death of an intimate partner reshapes the quotidian experience of survival.

By now, some of Didion's most dramatic accounts of denial have become well-known, given the broad attention her book has received. Noting that on the first night after her husband died she refused to [End Page 553] allow anyone to stay with her in her apartment, she explains, "Of course I knew John was dead. Of course I had already delivered the definitive news to his brother and to my brother and to Quintana's husband" (32). Nonetheless, she writes, "I needed to be alone so that he could come back" (33, italics added). And she candidly reveals, on numerous occasions, that her thoughts and acts are based on a "primitive instinct" (32) to replace the factual narrative of the beloved's death with the more acceptable tale of what ought to have happened. She authorizes an autopsy for her husband (although, as she comments, such a procedure inspires irrational anxiety in many people) because she wants to be sure that "he was dead all along," asserting, "If I did not believe he was dead all along I would have thought I should have been able to save him" (22). (Indeed, she later observes that if an autopsy showed that "what had gone wrong was something simple . . . they might still be able to fix it" [37].) She refuses, too, to read obituaries because they signify that she "had allowed other people to think he was dead" and, worse, that she had "allowed him to be buried alive" (35). She finds herself incapable of giving away some of her husband's shoes because "he would need shoes if he was to return" (37). Then, several months after her husband's death, when she arranges a memorial service for him, she is disappointed by the ceremony because, though she saw to it that everything was done properly, "it still didn't bring him back" (43, italics added).

Bizarre as some of these revelations may seem, most have parallels in experiences recounted by others who have lived through the awful days, months, even years following the unexpected death of a loved one. In my own case, I remember just such fears: I have left him, buried alive, out in the rain; I have been...