12 July 2009

the year of magical thinking

It is so funny how I still avoid certain books. The ones I feel are too highbrow for me. Too literary. Like The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Its cover is so simple and iconic. It won the National Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and for the Pulitzer. All of that accolade scared me away.

Which is so ridiculous! How many times have I done this, shied away from what turned out to be an incredible book just because I thought it would be above my comprehension? These books get awards and become classics because they are good.

I remember having that revelation in high school while reading Les Miserables. And then again after picking up Pride and Prejudice the summer after tenth grade. And again after reading To Kill a Mockingbird the summer after graduation, when for some reason I felt my public school education was lacking and I was determined to read all the classics I'd never been assigned in school before going away to college. I think that was the only one I read that summer, but it is still one of the best books I've ever read!

Anyway, the thing is, even after having this revelation over and over again I still fall back into the pattern of intimidation. Where I pick up a classic and, no matter how many times it's been recommended to me (and working at a bookstore, this happened a lot) put it back on the shelf in lieu of something "easier" to read. Here are some of the titles I have been wanting to read but shying away from for years:

The Count of Monte Cristo
Their Eyes Were Watching God

Things Fall Apart


Out of Africa
anything by Virginia Woolf
or anything by Anais Nin

To name a few.

I think this is why I love being in a book group. Because without someone telling me to I never would have picked up The Life of Pi or The Bluest Eye or The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And it's why I get annoyed when my book group picks some chick lit beach-read that I would probably have read on my own.

I don't even like chick lit. I have tried it. I have tried Jennifer Crusie and Helen Fielding and Jane Green and that's about all I can stomach. I don't think I will try any others. No thank you. Too much emphasis on the types of shoes worn by the sassy, gorgeous-but-perpetually-single heroine who also sometimes owns a rascally dog or has an either overweight or oversexed hilarious sidekick. (Except for Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, which I did like and which seriously emphasized the heroine's shoes, but I guess there must be an exception to every rule!)

Anyway, the point of all of this is I finally picked up The Year of Magical Thinking this weekend. There is a thrift store a few blocks from Glenbogle house that I have fallen in love with. They mostly sell clothes and they offer 25% off on Mondays. So I drag the kids there every Monday and we fight the insane crowds of people carrying armloads of clothes to head straight for the book aisle. It is an entire aisle of books ranging in price from 80 cents a paperback to $2.82 for hardbacks. And really good hardbacks, too. I leave every week with an armload of books for less than $10.00! Anyway, last week I grabbed The Year of Magical Thinking. And I started it last night.

It is gorgeous. I have fallen in love with this book. Here's the synopsis of the book from Publisher's Weekly and if you have already read this book, bear with me because I am just discovering it!

The author ... chronicles the year following the death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, from a massive heart attack on December 30, 2003, while the couple's only daughter, Quintana, lay unconscious in a nearby hospital suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. Dunne and Didion had lived and worked side by side for nearly 40 years, and Dunne's death propelled Didion into a state she calls "magical thinking." "We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss," she writes. "We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes." Didion's mourning follows a traditional arc—she describes just how precisely it cleaves to the medical descriptions of grief—but her elegant rendition of its stages leads to hard-won insight, particularly into the aftereffects of marriage. "Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age."

I am usually a very fast reader. I skim. But I am reading this book slowly, chewing and swallowing every word. It is a fascinating window into grief. I find myself with a lump in my throat the entire time I am reading, thinking about my relationship to Jonathan, how codependent we are and how that is not unhealthy. I think also about my brother, whose wife passed away suddenly this February, and how maybe he would appreciate this book and see himself in it. And I think about my grandparents, who have been married 63 years.

So much fiction focuses on the unravelling of marriage. Or on the process of falling in love, abruptly ending once the couple decides to marry. "Will you marry me?" "Yes!" And ... cut! Fade to black.

This is a tribute to an amazing partnership. And a dissection of the process of grieving. And a commentary on how far-removed from death we as a society have become.

I had been thinking I might take a course offered at the community college on death and grieving to fulfill my sociology requirement. I figured it would be informative since as a nurse, I would be sure to face death at some point no matter what field of nursing I choose to enter. But now I want to take the class to better understand the physical and mental effects of grief. Because it is still a bit of a medical taboo. There are all sorts of medicines to help with depression. Even postpartum depression because it seems aberrant that a woman who is supposed to be euphoric is not. But when someone is grieving it is regarded as just a sad time in their lives they will "get over" in time. Which may be true. But there are physical effects of grief as well as mental and if we treat postpartum depression, why not try to help people who are grieving, too? Not implying that a pill could eradicate a widow's sadness, but maybe there is some way to help. I don't know. At the very least it would confirm that grief is a medical condition.

The fascinating, heartbreaking emphasis of this book is the way Didion's mind is not functioning rationally. How this wise, witty woman is still expecting her husband to return to her from death. How she realizes this thought is irrational. But how she persists in believing it. I am only partway through the book so I don't know yet if this hope is a poisonous thing or a useful thing. Or if she even makes the case either way.


Kristen said...

I loved this book. I think you will like it all the way through. :)

Anonymous said...

I have always meanrt to get arounfd to reading this book. It terrifies me and fascinates me at the same time. Not all fiction focuses on the "fade to black" as you so accurately put it, however. Jamie and Claire fight through time and space for each other.

You just knew I would through in a Gabaldon comment, didn't you!

Also, I recommend Elizabeth Edward's FIRST autibiography. The journey she takes in dealing with the death of her son, Wade, left me perpetually throat-lumped.


Anonymous said...

Could my typing be any worse?


Anonymous said...

Get thee to a bookstore and purchase Out Of Africa right now!!!!!!!!!!! Karin Blixen was simply brilliant (also known as Isak Dineson). When I went to Africa a few years ago I had a layover in Nairobi. I asked the concierge who met me at the airport to take me to my hotel if there really were streets in Nairobi named for Karin Blixen. Her whole face lit up and she couldn't stop talking about this woman. The young lady was Kikuyu (Blixen was responsible for some of their tribal land being restored to them.) A white woman who was reviered (sp?) in black Africa in the 20's and 30's...pretty remarkable. Out of Africa is an amazing read. READ IT!!!!!


girlysmack said...

Thanks, Leila. I definitely will now! ;)

Susan said...

Their Eyes Were Watching God is powerful. I read it at least twice a year!