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`The Year of Magical Thinking': a Powerful Chronicle of Grieving

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"The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion; Knopf ($23.95)


In late 2003, five months after a joyful wedding, Joan Didion's only child almost died from septic shock.

On Dec. 30, 2003, after visiting their daughter in the hospital, Didion's husband, author John Gregory Dunne, dropped dead of a heart attack.

In spring 2004, their daughter, Quintana Roo, relapsed and was hospitalized for months, leaving Didion, one of America's most acclaimed authors, grappling with both life-threatening illness and bottomless grief.

These events are chronicled in Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," a slim book that's both a powerful statement on grief and dying and an indelible glimpse into the 40-year marriage of two of the most talented writers on the planet. It is at times almost unbearably sad, particularly if the reader knows what the book does not say - that shortly before this book was published, Quintana, 39, died after a lingering series of abdominal infections, leaving Didion bereft of her entire family.

Let Didion say why she wrote this book:

"This is my attempt to make sense of the period that followed, weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself."

Didion ("Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "The Book of Common Prayer") and Dunne ("True Confessions," "Nothing Lost") were almost joined at the hip. They wrote novels, journalism and screenplays and were each other's advisers, editors and sounding boards.

Because they both worked at home, they were together almost 24 hours a day. She writes: "I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted."

The night Dunne died, the hospital social worker described Didion as a "cool customer." As days without John stretched into weeks, and weeks into months, she tried to research and rationalize her way out of grief: "Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control."

But death has a way of kneecapping the most mercilessly rational among us. Part of this book is Didion watching herself becoming irrational: unhinged, as the saying goes, by grief.

She eagerly awaits autopsy results - then realizes that she's hoping to understand what killed John, so that she might be able to get it fixed.

She cleans out his closet but cannot let go of his shoes: "I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: He would need shoes if he was to return."

Because of Didion's superb ability to conceptualize and contextualize, this book is both a meditation on death and an observation of how our contemporary world deals with it - or not. Rereading a 1922 Emily Post book on the etiquette of grief, Didion notes the practical tips on aiding the grieving ("The cook may suggest something that appeals usually to their taste - but very little should be offered at a time, for although the stomach may be empty, the palate rejects the thought of food, and digestion is never in best order.").

"She wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view," Didion writes.

Two days after Dunne's memorial service, Quintana flew to California with her husband. She relapsed, was hospitalized again and again almost died. Didion flew to Los Angeles to be with her, and found herself in the city of the early years of her marriage to Dunne.

The neighborhood where they lived when they brought their newly adopted daughter home from the hospital. The place where Dunne stood in their swimming pool all one summer, reading and rereading the novel "Sophie's Choice," "to try to figure out how it worked." She moved, fragile, among those landmarks, trying to avoid the vortexes of grief embedded in the currents of the city.

Didion's writing always has displayed an almost musical sense of repetition. A seemingly innocuous passage is repeated and amplified until it swells with an undercurrent of portent.

This style frames the progression of her grief as she treads the landscape of loss and regret, over and over again:

"What would I give to be able to discuss this with John?

"What would I give to be able to discuss anything at all with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy?

"What would that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?"

"The Year of Magical Thinking" ends a year after Dunne's death, but the informed reader knows Didion's journey has just begun. It will set the reader to thinking about his or her own journey, his relationship with loved ones, the importance of living in the moment.

It sent this reviewer to all those places, but also into a recognition of the difference between reading for diversion and reading for your life.

I've never read anything by Joan Didion that didn't force me to peer hard at our fractured world and into our burdened hearts.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" may be the apotheosis of that kind of reading experience. This is a sad and anguished book, told in some of the plainest, yet most eloquent prose you'll ever encounter.

Everyone who has ever lost anyone, or will ever lose anyone, would do well to read it.


(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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