IT WAS THE NIGHT before Christmas Eve and I had just finished some last-minute shopping with P and was on the way home when I heard the news that Joan Didion had passed away at her home in Manhattan from Parkinson’s disease. She was 87. This news hit me really hard. I had first read The Year of Magical Thinking (the 2005 memoir about the sudden loss of the author’s husband, John Gregory Dunne) in 2019 and was so moved by this book that the next year, I read Play It As It Lays, The White Album, and Blue Nights. As I write this by the light of my desk lamp over a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I thought about what it was that really drew me to Didion’s work. Perhaps it was because I really connected with the spare, straight-forward yet wonderfully poetic writing of this Californian culture columnist, this acclaimed writer and journalist.
One of my favourite lines in The Year of Magical Thinking is, “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” I remember being completely drawn in from the very first words of this memoir, then reading it straight through, wondering why I hadn’t discovered Didion’s work before. I felt like I had happened upon a wonderful new world of beautifully written, astute observations about life and ageing, society and politics, and the passing of time. Especially the passing of time. It was a topic she spoke of often and understood so well. It is a topic that I have been obsessed with since I was first aware of time, the summer when our family went camping and my two missing front teeth had grown in by the time we returned home at summer’s end.
Perhaps it was Didion’s raw exploration of grief in The Year of Magical Thinking that so captivated me:
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”
The title of the book refers to magical thinking the anthropological sense, to the thinking that if one hopes for something enough or performs the right actions, an unavoidable event can be averted. I, too, have used magical thinking in many instances of my life. Perhaps the thing that most drew me to this 2005 memoir is the fact that I could relate to her relationship with her late husband. P and I have a similar relationship: “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.” I too, have wondered briefly what would happen if death parted us, for to me, that is the only way we would ever be apart. I see us growing gracefully old together, slipping away quietly and painlessly together in our sleep at 106 years of age, but nothing in life in guaranteed. This memoir reminded me of this and made me appreciative of the fact that I am lucky enough to be married to my true love, my soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another (to quote a cheesy film).
Before she became a literary journalist, novelist and essayist, Joan Didion was majoring in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, from which she would receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. At the age of 21, she won Vogue’s writing contest, which led to seven years working at the magazine’s offices in New York. (It was here that she met Dunne, who was writing for Time magazine.) In an interview for The Paris Review, Didion was asked if any writer influenced her more than others, to which she replied:
“I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”
She was the epitome of cool and at the age of 80, became the face of French fashion house Céline. The world seems a little less bright without her in it.