Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Year of Magical Thinking

This is a recently published book by Joan Didion, on the bestsellers list, about the sudden death of her husband, John, at the time that her only daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized and in critical condition. Her daughter lived through a hematoma and brain surgery only to die the following year, after Didion's book had been sent to the publisher.

I do not think that this real life event is the punchline; my revealing the outcome does not spoil the suspense. Her husband died and then her daughter died. That is a good summary of the book. As Didion writes,
    This will not be a story in which the death of the husband or wife becomes what amounts to a credit sequence for a new life.
While there is a measure of resolution or peace, this is primarily a self observation of pain and grief.

    I am dropping my keys on the table inside the door before I fully remember: There is no one to hear this news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back. "I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense," C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife. "It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there's an impassable frontierspost across it. So many roads once; now so many culs-de-sacs."
Here is one more example of what to expect in this book, in a short anecdote about Quintana.

    In the eleventh grade she had been woken at Susan's at 6:30 in the morning to learn that Dominique had been murdered.

    "Most people I know at Westlake don't even know anyone who died," she said, "and just since I've been there I've had a murder and a suicide in my family."

    "It all evens out in the end," John said, an answer that bewildered me (what did it mean, couldn't he do better than that?) but one that seemed to satisfy her.

    Several years later, after Susan's mother and father died within a year or two of each other, Susan asked me if I remembered John telling Quintana that it all evened out in the end. I said I remembered.

    He was right," Susan said. "It did."

    I recall being shocked. It had never occurred to me that John had meant that bad news will come to each of us. Either Susan or Quintana had surely misunderstood. I explained to Susan that John had meant something entirely different: he meant that people who get bad news will eventually get their share of good news.

    "That's not what I meant at all," John said.

    "I knew what he meant," Susan said.

    Had I understood nothing?
Read reviews here. I found this book in some ways almost clinical and in other ways simply too painful to read in more than short segments. I put it down to read C.S. Lewis' Letters to an American Lady. This was a happy decision, as Lewis intersperses dental difficulties and the delightful idiosyncracies of cats with the events around the time of his wife's death.

Joan Didion's book is well worth the read, a book that will help people articulate and share experiences which are on some level common to us all. I am glad that this is the one recent bestseller that I have read.

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