The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is an autobiographical narrative in which Didion recounts the events leading up to her husband’s death and there after.
The quote “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends” is used as a recurring motif throughout the novel. The tragedy that
occurs within split uncontrollable seconds. The tragedy that gives you no space or opportunity to save the victim or redeem yourself. It throws you into the oft-mentioned “vortex” where you are forever circling a void with soul-searing questions.
Didion’s throws questions at the world at large, and they make you uncomfortable
about the stark truths that form life, mortality, and relationships. The destablizing
fragility and vulnerability of all that you take for granted, hold close to you, and
cherish as part of a mundane existence.
Her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had been at her side for close to 40 years, as a
fellow writer/critic/reviewer besides being a friend, companion and lover.
She mentions there not being a time when they had stayed apart for too long in
this period of 40 years.
The novel starts with both of them leaving their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne,
in the ICU of Beth North hospital after she suffers a crippling bout of pneumonia on the night of December 30, 2003. As parents they are wracked with possibilities of impending grief, because the daughter is not doing well at all. After whispering words of loving hope to his comatose daughter (“I love you more than one more day”), Gregory Dunne passes away himself … merely 24 hours later.
Life as you know it, and can accurately predict it as much as possible, does end
in the most brutal way possible. And you don’t even have the momentary comfort
of laying the blame on somebody else’s shoulders. Just an omnipresent sense of guilt
that keeps surfacing to tell you – that probably some measures could have been taken to prolong the inevitable from happening.
Didion with her shrewd journalistic instincts mentally analyzes the events leading to her husband’s death, along with repeatedly combing and scanning through medical reports in detail, in order to find a loophole. A hint that her husband could have been alive in those seconds when the ambulance was on its way. Or that she could have done something to keep him alive. The probabilities abound and make living in the present an unbearable challenge for her. She wants to avoid traveling to all those places where she has been with him. An active time lapse in her subconscious mind keeps her recounting events that would have happened with her husband at exactly a certain day or time, a year before. She keeps doing this till she realizes that a whole year has passed in mourning (she makes a critical point about the difference between grieving and mourning) and in the new year she could not think back to a day in the previous year with her husband – for the now simple yet unavoidable reason that he had been long dead by then.
The novel is a beautiful documentation of an efforted reconciliation at a loss that a person could not have predicted by a long shot, and is certainly not prepared to deal with, especially when grappling with the deteriorating health of a daughter – who would also soon pass away within a year.
The Year of Magical Thinking makes you pause and wonder at life and death in the most poignant way possible. Didion’s introspective questions gnaw at the irrationality of emotion, death, and an undefinable force that urges you to continue with life. But she knows well enough – as a person and as a writer – that incomplete answers can be much worse than unanswered questions, and hence rounds off the unsettling plot well with her prudent reconciliation to the unchangeable.