This is some of the most powerful nonfiction I have ever read. Didion gets put up on a pedestal in many circles, but it’s hard to argue convincingly that she doesn’t belong there. The Year of Magical Thinking is an incredibly moving piece of work, not only on the level of emotional appeal but on a level of prose -sentence by sentence.
By writing about her husband’s death so close upon the events themselves, she provides a look into the process of coming to terms with such a loss. It’s not that the emotions Didion feels are powerful because they are novel in any way; it’s the strength of her enunciation of emotion that comes through. Watching a first-rate mind observing itself get cloudy and seeing the line between Didion-the-subject and Didion-the-chronicler fade and then seeing how these two realities meet as her own self-perception becomes inconsistent in her grief brings home the realities of the death far more than any kind of external observation. It’s the macabre fulfillment of Gonzo journalism and it’s impossible to read without emotional investment. Didion’s glamorous and charmed life is no protection from the realities of mortality and the terrifying randomness of medical misfortune. Her responses to her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness are elevated to their own level of authenticity.
Didion’s portrayal of her own grief is the greatest account of the nature of the relationship she had with her husband. The process of her grief at John’s death provides both a perspective and a narrative device from which to understand something as common and as powerful as a lifetime partnership of both emotional intimacy and creativity. Didion fears writing, fears the idea of publishing anything that John cannot read over first. The perspective of loss frames that which was lost in such a way as to see the intensity and depth of the thing without sinking into the precious. There is no trite artifice here. Didion presents her life and his life through the most vulnerable period of time imaginable. It makes the reader long for the kind of relationship that lasts so long and so effectively as to warrant such grief.
Recommendation: Buy it and read it. Don’t rush the reading. Laugh bitterly at people who cry while reading The Fault in Our Stars.