So, I had to write a response to a book published in the past ten years that is in the non-fiction genre and I wrote about Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Here it is:
I’m not sure if it is because of my mother’s avid reading habits or my early devotion to (read: obsession with) the Harry Potter series but, at twenty-one years old, I identify myself as a voracious reader. I’ve read the classics, I’ve read the satires, and I’ve even fallen into the fad books raved about on the Internet, much to my own intellectual detriment. Most of the time, I find myself immersed in pieces of literature that lead me out of my own life and into ones that are much more complex than my own. Rarely do I find myself with a renewed sense of life or thought, post-turning of that final page. However, rarely does not mean “never” and when I finished Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I found myself swaddled in the clichéd cloth of a life-changing epiphany.
If you’ve never read the piece, it follows the emotional journey of Didion after her writer husband, John Dunne, suddenly dies of a heart attack at the dinner table after visiting their only daughter, Quintana Roo, in the hospital. Quintana was battling septic shock at the time. The entire work is not particularly long but as a first-hand account of dealing with grief, it is an exhaustingly beautiful novel to finish. At the end, I found myself drained, tired, and suddenly hyperaware of what it means to live.
As aforementioned, that “life-changing epiphany” I found myself serendipitously realizing was how fragile my loved ones are. I am fortunate enough that I still have both of my parents, my sister, my grandparents on both sides of the family, my aunts and uncles. Prior to reading this piece, I had never really realized how lucky I was that I had never gone through such an ordeal – that I never saw death that up, close, and personal. I had never had a reason to notice my mortality or that of others. I had always been perfectly content going through the motions of my life; spending the occasional meal here and there with my loved ones, seeing them on holidays and birthdays, but mostly neglecting their existence as integral figures in my life. I don’t think, at the core, that I harbored the naïve notion that they would be around forever but I think I just never entertained the idea that one day they would be gone. As quick as a flash of light, my family and my friends could be here at the dinner table with me one minute, en route to the morgue the next.
What struck a chord most with me about Didion’s trial with grief is that I know I can walk away with wisdom from it now, reading it as someone who has yet to deal with such a common tragedy, but it can also be something to be revisited later on. The Year of Magical Thinking harbors no paranormal plot line, terrifying twist, or fairytale romance. It is work that is so cerebral and heart-wrenchingly human that it has no date of expiry – a feat very hard to achieve in a world where everyone is looking for the next best vampire drama. Didion is living proof that while a well-told story is riveting, raw emotion is the strongest fiber woven throughout the tapestry of reader’s interest.
Closing the novel, I walked away with a heavy heart and a renewed sense of appreciation for my grandparents. I suddenly wanted to hug them while listening, absorbing, and memorizing every nugget of wisdom I could get them to impart. I picked up Joan Didion’s book at the beginning of summer 2012 and spent the entirety of the season trying to live in a way that would make it not so hard when I would actually live the horrors that she did, only to realize that such an idea is impractical and unrealistic. We are born to this earth and raised to know that death is inevitable as is dealing with it but we never really appreciate what that absolute fact means until it happens. We are a selfish species that way in that we, mostly, do not deal with such an important facet of existence until we are slapped in the face with it. And perhaps that is the crux of what Didion is trying to convey; that while grief is a process and an arduous one at that, it is not something we can ever prepare for but merely be aware of and disregard until the last possible moment.
Overall, I found the work to be incredibly important to my way of thinking. In less than three hundred pages, I felt like Didion’s words had helped me mature in a way that my years in high school and college could never have done. In your early twenties, life is centered around school, potential jobs, and a bustling social life. It is a time of narcissism, self-entertainment, and insecurity with some reckless abandon sprinkled in. I never realized these facts when I watched those overdramatic videos in school about not drinking and driving and how my generation “thinks we’re invincible.” I rolled my eyes the whole time thinking that they’re wrong, but they’re not. I never truly understood how breakable life is – how I am, how my parents are, how my loved ones are. I shutter at leaving you with the trite statements of “making it count” and “take nothing for granted” so I will spare you those failed utterings of our elders and urge you to read Didion’s piece. If it does nothing else for you, you will certainly feel much, much, more alive.