Friday, May 2, 2008

The Year of Magical Thinking

Reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion freaked me out a little. I think I've always been acutely aware of the potential horrors that lurk around every corner, but this book made it even worse. I mean, her husband dies while her only child is in a coma in the hospital? That doesn't happen. Oh wait, it's an autobiography. It DID happen.

When tragedy strikes, you always hear people say things like "we never thought it would happen to us" or "we always thought that these things happened to other people". I NEVER think that. I can pretty much always envision tragedy striking, in fact I do with alarming regularity. Every time Jeff is 20 minutes later than I expect, I picture him mugged and unconscious in some downtown alley or trapped inside his crushed car with the jaws of life pulling him out. Sometimes when he calls my cell and his name pops up on the screen, I wonder if it's actually the hospital who found my name in his cell phone and they're calling to tell me something has happened. When my cat isn't waiting on the front porch for me at 5:15 when I pull up from work, I typically imagine he's been attacked by the neighborhood raccoon. I regularly visit the blog; but there hasn't been a post in over a week. I am convinced that she has miscarried and am desperately sad for her. The facts are that Jeff is ALWAYS late for EVERYTHING, my cat is unreliable and Julie from alittlepregnant is probably on vacation.

Joan's book opens with the real life account of her husband John dying while sitting at the dinner table with her. The rest of the book details the year that follows his death. Despite the fact that the book freaked me out a little (very articulate), I really appreciated this book.

At first it felt like the book was missing emotion, it was describing grief too clinically for me. I'm used to reading chick lit books that would have the main character falling to her knees and sobbing when her husband dies. The widow would then pick up the pieces after some time and likely fall in love with someone new by the end of the novel. In fact, I feel like the book PS I Love You basically had that plot, didn't it? Joan's book shatters that image. (PS is it weird that I seem to be on a first name basis with Joan?) Her account is more about the minutae of grief -her inability to replace his voice on their answering machine, removing his name from their checks, not disturbing his stack of books in the living room. It made me realize that a marriage is not necessarily composed of big, sweeping moments, but the details. And this isn't necessarily BAD.

Sometimes her use of quotes from other books and magazines irritated me and seemed pretentious. The same goes for the ridiculous amount of times a famous name is dropped or she casually mentions staying at the Ritz or dining at Mortons. At the same time I had to remember that she is a writer. Her husband was a writer. They read a lot of books. They were famous and probably pretty rich. This is an autobiography. I also think that listing hotels, restaurants and names was consistent with the way she writes, which is very specifically. Everything she said was specific, so why shouldn't she also list full names and the exact hotel she stayed in when visiting Paris? It was almost like if she didn't, it wouldn't have really happened. Or like listing the specifics was the best she could do. She couldn't tell us what she was feeling, but she could tell us which friend she had dinner with and what she odered.

I was told this was a good book to read because it illustrated a "successful marriage". All the time while reading, I was piecing together her memories of John and their life together before he died. Hoping that when I sewed them all together it would show me the picture of a long term love relationship. I think it did. The picture just wasn't the one I was expecting. Aside from the occasional spontaneous trip to Paris or Hawaii, the picture of their marriage was made up of every day happenings- fights they had, conversations while driving, doctor's appointments, dinner parties. At the same time it affirmed my belief that there's a time limit on life and that you never know what the limit is. I might be misquoting, but I think she mentions something her husband said once, something about how they should be doing "more". And she understood it to mean that they should be doing more together. Not vacations or dinners out, but just that they should enjoy eachother more. It's corny, but when I read the book I couldn't help but wonder if I were put in her position, if Jeff collapsed over a bowl of Trader Joe's gnocchi tomorrow night, would I have regrets? I think that's what I meant when I said I appreciated this book; I appreciate her making me ask this question.

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