Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking

Had I been operating from my rational mind… I would not for example have experienced, when I heard that Julia Child had died, so distinct a relief, so marked a sense that this was finally working out: John and Julia Child could have dinner together. (205)
When I read Ed’s satire of Didion, I laughed so hard that I almost could not read her essay. But I did. I bought the book for my husband for his birthday and let it sit, unread in my desk for a couple weeks although the excerpt in the Times and the enthusiasm of Bud, my mom, and many others made me itch to cheat and read it first. Now his birthday is past and he has read and admired it. I have too. It is terrific. And, as Didion says of one phase of her grief, I know that I do not sufficiently appreciate it.

I gobbled Didion’s book over the weekend. She offers such a rich picture of her marriage that it contributes to my understanding of marriage and such a rich picture of her grief that I know it will help me cope with my own. Didion reports that when their daughter complained at having experienced too much death (a suicide, the murder of her cousin Dominique [Dominick/Nick Dunne’s daughter]), her father said “it all evens out.” While Didion assumed this to mean that good times return to all, Quintana and her friend Susan Traylor understood John Gregory Dunne to mean that everyone lives with a full measure of grief, a meaning that Didion now recognizes to be the accurate one.

I read The White Album and other essays in graduate school and admired Didion’s clinical precision. I still do. But I never expected to identify with her: that identification is not part of the persona of a clinically precise writer. I never thought of her as sharing my weirdly determined optimism and I certainly did not think of her as a contemporary of my parents—though she is. She watched Julia Child and made soufflés in the seventies as my mother did; she keeps a journal of what she cooks as I try to do; she likes to read etiquette books, especially Emily Post; she shops at Citarella. Her husband graduated from Princeton in 1954. My father graduated from Princeton in 1955. And, like my (very much not famous) father, her husband wrote tiny, laconic entries for his reunion books. Strange to think that, like her daughter Quintana (who was my age), I, too, grew up making fun of the pretentious, long-winded self-congratulory essays in those occasional bound reunion volumes from Princeton.

I have only experienced real grief second hand, watching my mother grieve for her mother, my husband grieve for his father, and my mother-in-law for her husband. Our courtship was shaped by the anticipation of grief: six weeks into dating, just before Valentine’s Day, my husband’s father received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. We were not even a couple, but our ability to steer our way through this and become a couple at the same time made me—made us?—think we might do all right in a marriage. We did marry a year and a half later, and, several months after that, my father-in-law died.

It turns out that being able to come together in a crisis is a good predictor of some good things necessary for marriage, but not everything. And reading about grief helps me understand the disorienting disconnection between us during those hard first years. How could we expect to forge a partnership when one of us was actively grieving for a deservedly beloved parent? Didion’s marriage sounds lovely, a great and supportive partnership between writers, happily devoid of competition. This is not the same kind of balance we have struck, but it is fascinating to read about how a professional woman worked to figure out how to be a wife: “In those first years,” Didion writes, “I would pin daisies in my hair, trying for a ‘bride’ effect. Later I had matching gingham skirts made for me and Quintana, trying for ‘young mother’” (209). This admission, charming and pathetic, reveals much about the complexities of choice for women; Didion does not question her love for her husband or her daughter; it’s clear that her marriage included tensions and fights and yet none of this is what initially was confusing. What was confusing is how to present oneself in public, how to dress and act.

A major theme of the book is the irrationality of grief and its attendant vulnerability. I’m sure that this vulnerability lies at the heart the difference between this book and previous Didion works. It facilitated my (perhaps embarrassing but moving to me) sense of identifying with her even as I cannot, thank God, fully understand her grief. A clinically precise exploration of magical thinking is just the kind of paradoxical project to bring out the best in Didion. Her double sense that Julia Child’s death gave her husband a great dinner companion and that such a thought is absurd captures for me the comforting and strange inadequacy of our understanding of death.