The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan DidionGuest blogger: Jason Bartholomew, Rights Director

The Two Roads Book Club met last week to discuss Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. The tea was brewed, the pastries were glistening, and the conversation was flowing. Overall, the general feeling was each of us felt a strong connection to Didion’s book. Whether the book conjured up memories of funerals attended in Mexico, time spent working as a grief counsellor where this book was suggested reading for those in mourning, or perhaps that it simply served as a reminder of our own mortality — we all agreed Didion’s book was a moving account but not an easy read.

Personally, I very much enjoyed the book. Didion has written a phenomenal memoir of death, grief, and how life can change in an instant. There is such a sadness to the story, but the richness of the writing is transportive. The book opens with Didion’s husband dying suddenly of cardiac arrest. Didion had been preparing dinner in their apartment in Manhattan, and one moment her husband was alive — sitting in his favorite chair and reading — and the next moment he was dead.

There is a poignancy and immediacy to her story-telling. Our lives trundle along a path, a very well-worn path for decades — in the author’s case — and suddenly everything changes. This is not a new tale to tell, but Didion tackles it with a raw honesty that is admirable. It is written from the view of being overcome with grief and you feel — as the reader — that you are in the tunnel with her. You feel cloaked with Didion’s sorrow. You desperately feel that you don’t want to ever be in her position. But you understand inherently, as Didion reminds you, there is no choice. “It all evens out in the end,” her husband once tells his daughter about death.

Didion lovingly recounts the 40 year marriage she had with John Gregory Dunne, and the partnership they had as writers and as parents. As a reader you envy the effortless team they made as a married couple, and all the shared experiences they built over such a long life together. It is a partnership well lived. But the brutal and sudden ending to this marriage strikes a raw nerve for anyone who has ever lost a loved one; or for anyone who understands the naivety of the filters we can build to the inevitability of death.

My dad died twice of heart failure in January of this year, and twice he was saved on the operating table. It came as a shock. But it really shouldn’t have. He’s had heart trouble for

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a decade. The doctors later told us if his heart had stopped a third time they wouldn’t have tried to revive him again. They were worried his brain would have lost too much oxygen by that point. I was in London at the time, an ocean away, just starting my morning when my mom called. I remember feeling

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weightless. I remember leaving my desk to speak to my mom in privacy away from my office. I remember quietly slipping back to my desk, sending a hasty email to a few people telling them I had to leave, and then taking a flight the next day to the US to be by my dad’s

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We spent four days in the ICU not knowing if he would live or die. It has now been six months since this incident and my dad is back to normal. Well, as normal as one can be when inheriting a faulty heart. Truthfully, as Dunne knew, my dad knows he will die from a faulty heart.

Didion covers this in her book, when her husband in 1987 — after having a heart scare — tells his wife he at least now knows how he will die. Didion dismisses this notion from her husband at the time.

But aren’t we all on borrowed time? Life is meant to be about living, and from the minute we enter this world, there is a human fragility on which we all inevitably teeter.

We have a vacation planned this summer at a house my dad rented. The payment for the house was recently finalized. My dad wrote to my sister and me, ‘if I die before the vacation starts, I want you all to go. The house is already paid for.’ My dad is living, but perhaps really he is already in the final stages of preparing for his death.

There are certain facts to life. We are all born and we all will die. There is no escaping death. Some of us spend our lives looking over our shoulders, worrying about taking risks, not knowing if and when we will die.

In THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Didion reflects on various moments of the life she lived with John and wonders how — since her husband’s proclamation in 1987 of what form his death would take — if she had taken this thought more seriously at the time, if she could have lived her life any differently. She wonders how she and John could have lived their lives differently together.

Didion is forced in to a different ending to the life she imagined. Perhaps this is the ultimate lesson of the book. Life has a plan for each of us that is different to the one imagined. That is the fragility, and perhaps the excitement, of life. Life can be cruel, it can be bittersweet, but each us needs to absorb and adapt to whatever roadblocks might get in our way.

Back to the Friday book club, and in the end we were divided 50/50 over whether we would recommend the book to read. We were impressed with her writing and found the book incredibly heart-wrenching, but perhaps the subject matter is too difficult to recommend the book outright; at least not without some warning for the intrepid reader.

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