Reading Challenge: ‘A memoir’ — The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

I opened this book with only the faintest idea of its contents. Joan Didion, an author whose work I greatly admire and enjoy, wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in 2004. She began shortly after her husband’s sudden death. This much I knew from the summary on the back and what I have heard from folks I know who have read it. I had no idea how Didion would approach this subject — as a journalist, digging into the facts of what killed a man? As a heartbroken widow in shock, trying to understand what had happened by writing words on a page? As a storyteller determined to weave the events together into something somehow palatable? Turns out, Didion did all three.

I enjoyed this memoir because the author perfectly balanced the scientific perspective of loss with its human aspect. She makes textbook language seem interesting, and she spills her heart without laying it on too thick — she’ll occasionally quote a poem or a book to illustrate how she feels, but manages to keep it simple. Didion also develops the key players’ personalities using anecdotes, illuminating stories and little details without exhausting description.

If you’re familiar with Didion’s work, you’ll know what I mean when I say she knows how to put you there. She is a journalist, and as such she knows how to paint a picture for the reader. It’s as if she’s letting you in on a secret with every sentence — one that you are dying to know. Even when she’s describing something as mundane as her driving route to the UCLA Medical Center, you’re hooked. You’re in the car with her as she weaves through Westwood.

Didion takes you with her on her healing journey in the wake of the death of her husband — her best friend, her confidante, her editor — and you feel like you’re healing along with her. It truly was a thoughtful and well-written take on loss and how hard it can be to try to move on. I’d highly recommend this book whether or not you know what it’s like to lose someone close to you.


Fulfilled “A memoir” on my 2015 Reading Challenge checklist

227 pages
Published: 2005

Up next? “A book with nonhuman characters” — Watership Down, by Richard Adams

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