May 30, 2008
Review: The Year of Magical Thinking
Late one night in November 2005, as I flipped channels on the tv, I came across a woman being interviewed on Nightline by Meredith Viera, who was sitting in for Ted Koppel. The woman's name was Joan Didion and she had written a book. I don't know if I had even heard of her before, but it became obvious that she was an accomplished writer/journalist. As I listened to her talk about her book I was drawn to her story. The book is called THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING and it is a tragic, sad account of the sudden loss of her husband, novelist, journalist John Dunne (younger brother of Dominick Dunne) and soon after, her adult daughter, Quintana Roo and how she coped with the events and her loss. After watching her, I wanted to run right out and get her book. I was intrigued.
The story itself is just awful. In New York on Christmas Day 2003, Quintana was admitted to the hospital with severe flu-like symptoms that soon escalated into pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was in a coma and on life support. Five days later after visiting their still comatose daughter in the hospital, John Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack. Four weeks later Quintana woke up and asked her mother, 'Where's Dad?'. It would be the first of many times she would have to explain to her daughter that her dad was gone. Two months later, she was released from the hospital and would begin to resume her life. But as it turned out Quintana collapsed at LAX airport returning home to California. She was rushed to the hospital where she underwent brain surgery to relieve a massive hematoma. She was in and out of hospitals and rehabs for months on end until she passed away in October 2005, the same time her mothers book was being released.
Although my heart goes out to Joan Didion for the heartache she went through during that time, I have mixed feelings about the book. I really wanted to like this book and I wanted to come away with some knowledge of understanding grief that I hadn't had before. That is not at all what I got. Her grief is obvious, but she never really lets you in to the core of her human emotions. She gives great detail of the the movements she made going to and from hospitals and talking to this doctor and that specialist, but it all came across very cold and removed to me.
One thing that bothered me about this book is that she makes it quite clear early on (if you are unaware of who they are) that she and John are literary people who take literature and their part in it very seriously. Everything has to be in connection with a passage they read or a book they wrote. But if you haven't spent 15 years in college and you don't have a Masters degree in literature, you have no knowledge of these references and they can't possibly have the same meaning as they do to the Dunne's, who live and breathe literature. The continuous references became tiresome to me. And these references would take her off onto stories of places she and John worked or lived, different countries they visited or lived for periods of time. Sometimes I forgot what she began talking about in the first place. There is an enormous amount of repetition as well. Maybe that was her frame of mind at the time of writing the book, but it became annoying. I felt she was rambling and her mind was wandering. Maybe it was.
Another thing was the incessant name-dropping. It was as if every single famous person they knew was mentioned in this book. But there was never a meaningful story to go along with it. Just a mention of the name for whatever purpose. Its obvious Mrs. Dunne wanted to make sure the world knows that she and her husband moved in famous circles. THAT was the most annoying thing of all. When she mentioned that after John died and she couldn't eat, that "a friend" brought her Congee from a Chinatown restaurant everyday because that's all she could eat, she never once mentioned that persons name. Unless you were famous, you didn't get a mention. In all the months she was in the hospital with her daughter, there was never any mention of a conversation with Gerry, Quintana's husband. Only his name was brought up a handful of times. That seemed odd to me.
I didn't expect this to be a self-help guide to grief counseling, but I did expect some insight into how she dealt with the pain and the loss. I was very disappointed. Once I finished the book, I felt no closer to understanding her experience than I did after watching her during her interview on Nightline.
I started reading this book in mid 2006. It took me a year and a half to finish it. The review is a little long, and I hope I haven't spoiled it for anyone else, but I wanted to be honest about my opinion. If anyone else has read the book and feels differently (and I'm sure there are), feel free to leave a comment so we can discuss it if you'd like.