The Short Version: Didion’s exploration of grief and mourning in the year after her husband’s sudden death. Part memoir, part academic thought-exercise, part biography, it adds up to be a lucid and thought-provoking examination of just what it means to lose someone and how such a loss can thoroughly shift your life.
The Review: I didn’t entirely know what to expect when I finally came round to reading this book. I hadn’t seen Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway, although I had considered it. I don’t really know Didion’s writing beyond that I confused her for Joyce Carol Oates as a younger reader and the one or two pieces of hers that I’d seen in The New Yorker or something. And the concept of grief is something that troubles me, that I struggle with.
I think, perhaps, the best way to approach the book is to take stock of your own life and the tragedies that have befallen you, personally. I have not lost a parent or a sibling or a lover. I have lost grandparents and I have lost an old school friend, someone who I grew up with. But in all of those cases, I am troubled to admit that I did not grieve as I had expected I would or as I felt I should. I don’t entirely remember my paternal grandmother’s passing except that it happened on Thanksgiving 1996 – I distinctly remember telling my younger cousin Brendan why everyone had come back to my house instead of going to see her. I remember the wake but not the funeral – the cousins put on an epic, multi-hour theatrical… event, I guess, that might’ve seemed inappropriate but was in fact a celebration of the woman who had reigned over our family for so long. It was a memorial to the grandfather we never met, too – the man who’d died on that very stage. But I don’t believe I cried.
Similarly when my maternal grandmother died, I don’t recall crying until many weeks later. Long after the funeral, at which I did tear up but did not cry. I noticed it among my family as well – my grandmother had lived a long and incredibly full life and, at the end, it was her body that failed her still incredibly sharp mind. I hadn’t gone to see her in her final days because I didn’t want my last memory of her to be someone who wasn’t the smartest person in the room. I mourned her in the sense that I was glad that she could finally be at peace – but I was not, per se, mourning her.
And when a childhood friend, a girl I had grown up with and who had dated my best friend in high school, died tragically a couple years ago, I found myself strangely unmoved until I stood at the funeral surrounded by people I’d not spoken to in literally years (a long and complicated falling out left me detached from the people I’d been closest to in high school) and I snuck away to a corner and found myself uncontrollably crying – but why? I hadn’t seen this girl in years, I hadn’t even been all that friendly with her towards the end of our association.
All of these questions that I had and continue to have are, as it turns out, the same questions Didion is wrestling with in this book. It’s a different end of the spectrum – to have spent forty years married to someone who then suddenly is not there is something I cannot even wrap my head around – but it is still the same spectrum. The questions of being able to change things, the questions of what we might’ve done differently, the questions of certain memories and certain places that now must be avoided.
The thing that’s most remarkable about this book, though, is that Ms. Didion is able to write so lucidly about something that is, by her own admission, a clouding. Grief obscures, confuses. And yet, eventually – as she points out with a mix of sadness and acceptance at the end of the book – one begins to accept it. Her life, at the end of the writing of this book, was not yet through its most tragic period but the very fact that she was able to start writing this book… and that it then only took her 88 short days to put it together… it is a sign of how time moves us forward. I am reluctant to say “getting over” the event – because how, how, can you get over such a loss? – but that’s perhaps the best phrase we have for the experience of feeling time continue to push forward and move us away from the epicenter of the quake that destroys what we knew.
There’s a lyrical quality to Didion’s prose – I’ve heard that she was heavily influenced by Hemingway and you can see that in the sparseness and clarity of the writing… but there’s also an elliptical quality that Hemingway, with his sharp clean prose, never would’ve been capable of (or, indeed, interested in). There is a poetry, in fact, to the writing. Perhaps its the subconscious links to the world of poetry – I mean, her husband’s name was John Dunne. Or perhaps it’s the fact that death, the one thing we cannot (no matter how hard we try) truly comprehend, forces us to write in a way that is simultaneously honest and vague. Both clear and confusing. We throw as many words as we can at the problem but we will never solve it. Ever. And this is, in a way, what this book accomplishes: you can feel the catharsis on the last page, as Didion finally understands as best she can the new world which the year of magical thinking led her to. It is a beautiful and moving experience, if one that I cannot fully come to grips with (simply because I am too young and too blessedly sheltered to have any experience that I could remotely associate with such a colossal loss).
Rating: 4 out of 5. I believe this is a book I will revisit as I get older and that my rating may ‘improve’ with time. There’s nothing wrong with this book – it is superb and moving and funny and sad and brilliant. But I find myself still grappling with the fact that I’ve yet to encounter a truly earth-shattering form of grief. May it be that I never have to – may my parents live into old age, may my children outlive me, may my sister and I die on the same day, may my wife do the same, may I luckily only ever have to experience the sadness of the passing of a beloved dog for the foreseeable future. But when the reaper does come knocking close to my heart, I take comfort in the knowledge that this book will be here. That minds greater than mine have been unmoored by grief in the same way that I will. I place this writing next to Hamlet’s early soliloquies as the prose that will be my crutch when my own words are taken away.