“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” – Joan Didion
This is the story of the year following the death of Didion’s husband, Gregory Dunne, a novelist and brother of the late Dominick Dunne (yet another writer in the family). Just so you know, there is no lack of family drama, either, if this kind of thing interests you. (It does, me!)
You should also know that their 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, lay unconscious in the hospital in an induced coma. Soon after, she awoke and learned of her father’s death, though to fully absorb it, she needed to be told three different times. Just reading that part of the book broke my heart. How incredibly difficult for Didion!
Then, Quintana came home… and in a cruel twist… fell as she disembarked the airplane. She would not recover. (That she was a struggling alcoholic seems secondary, though it’s VERY prevalent in the articles about her death that I found online.)
And so, Didion is grieving for both her husband and their daughter.
A third (or so) of the book is a memoir of the decades spent with her husband …
… and then, her life after his death …
… and soon after, the death of their daughter.
It is also part clinical study. What else can you say about a chapter (7) that begins with a chronological listing of what would become the crux of the book…
This happened and then that happened, then he died, then she did. <<< A very loose translation.
The Year of Magical Thinking is part realism and part love story, though there is nothing mushy about it.
As I did some research for this post, what I noticed most is that photos of Didion smiling are few-and-far-between, as the saying goes. In fact, she looks downright miserable in many.
Yet, she is also beautiful… and by that I mean… in the classic, model-worthy “Vogue” sense. By the way, she was an editor at Vogue when she met Dunne.
Once we get into the grieving process, things start to jump out at me:
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen the look on their own faces.”
As you know, if you have been reading along, my dad died in late February, only six or so weeks ago.
I think of my beautiful mother, doing really well, considering what she’s gone through over the last three years – culminating, of course, with Dad’s death. She lives in a “gated” community so even a trip to the mailbox might elicit some neighborly concern from those who know. Almost worse yet, those who don’t yet know for whatever reason. Can’t crumple right there on the asphalt… and wouldn’t *want to* anyway. Still such early days.
I think of my friend Betsy, a younger widow, who sometimes still, seven years after her husband’s death, shows that “vulnerability, nakedness and openness” (as Didion calls it). She likens it to walking out from an ophthalmologist’s office with dilated eyes into bright sunlight. <<< Such a good analogy! My eye ache at the thought of it! So does my heart!
Much of the rest of the book reads like prose…
“There were no faint traces about the dead, no pencil marks.”
Even a small tracing with a pencil denotes… alive. Still something there.
No pencil marks equal … *poof* … Permanent nothingness.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured a black sharpie… and then a dark pencil… and a light pencil… drawing lines around life…
^^^ Not that Didion needs my dramatic rendering.
No. This book, her story, stands on its own. It is an attempt at trying to make sense of everything.
Does she succeed? No, nor (in my opinion) should she. You simply *cannot* make sense of it all.
In the waning pages of the book, Didion talks of how we try to keep the dead alive – to keep them with us. She says we need to “relinquish” them… give them over…
“Let them become the photograph on the table,” she writes.
I look up and see the photo of my grandmother smiling down at me.
I’m waiting for a few photographs I had printed of Dad to come in the mail. I’m making him a memory book… or maybe I should say, making it for myself.
I think of my friend Debbie. Every time I get in my car, I am reminded of her. She made me a bracelet one year for Christmas. It hangs around my rear-view mirror. It’s never just “been there” or ignored… Every time I see it, I think of her.
There are our cats, Tess and Missy, who crossed the Rainbow Bridge years ago. We keep their ashes and footprints in plaster behind me on top of a bookshelf.
And my ex-husband, who was so proud of the pearls he gave me for Christmas three decades ago. I put them in a box that looks like a book, along with some photos of our family and his memorial card.
I realize that they’ve all become a “photograph on a table” so-to-speak. These are the tangible things that I can hold onto… to keep them alive… even though their pencil lines have faded and disappeared.
This is – perhaps – the very-most-terrible book to read while grieving. Or – also, perhaps – the very-most-wonderful.
For me… a little of both.
That’s not a bad thing.