I was intimidated to pick this up. Mostly because when I hear the name Joan Didion, I think of great literature, and then I automatically decide that it will be over my head. But this was available on Overdrive and I realized that I had nothing to lose – it wouldn’t cost me any money, I am ahead of my reading goal so I won’t fall behind, and I wouldn’t have to tell anyone that I even tried it if I couldn’t understand it.
Besides – I haven’t read anything by Didion and I want to read as many women writers as I can. When I hear her name, I always think about the sixties. Was she big in the sixties? Why would I think that?
This book is a memoir that chronicles one year in her life. In late December, as their only child is lying unconscious in a hospital with an infection inside of her whole body, Joan’s husband dies of a heart attack in their living room. (Don’t worry, this is all in the synopsis of the book, I’m not giving anything away here.)
She teases apart the differences in mourning and grieving in a very effective way. When you’re in mourning, you are coming to terms with the fact that you will never again see someone you love. When you are grieving, you are figuring out what your new normal will be like. She had a very difficult time getting to the grieving period, given that a huge chunk of time was devoted to caring for her daughter during her serious illness.
Throughout the entire year of this memoir, she kept thinking that John would return. Or, maybe his heart attack was her fault? Or maybe he hasn’t come back because she donated his shoes? You know, because he’ll need shoes when he comes back. This is what she dubs “magical thinking” – this idea that somehow, because of something that she’s able to do or some secret that she’ll uncover, John will come back.
I was turned off by the obvious wealth that is present in this memoir. At times, it seemed like Didion was just name- and place-dropping to show off, but as I kept reading, something else seeped in. Despite all of her wealth and fabulous connections, she still couldn’t stop this from happening. She still had to ride the waves and recognize that so much was out of her own control. She had to depend on the competence of doctors, despite her own efforts to educate herself on her daughter’s illness. She couldn’t buy her way out of this heartbreak, which is universal across all socioeconomic statuses. Sure, some things were much easier when you didn’t have to worry about funeral costs or hospital bills. Or – if you can fly out to California and stay at a fancy hotel and order room service for weeks because that’s where your daughter is. But push all of that away, and the grief is the same. The helplessness is the same. The gut wrenching realizations – they are all the same.
This was a fast read given that it was written in snippets. Some of her passages were long and thought out. Others were just a sentence or two, reflections on whatever thoughts were swimming in her head. It was a very good book and I admire how honest she tried to be while writing. This was a tragic year for her, and I couldn’t help but think how this happens to people all of the time and we never even know about it. It’s a great empathy builder if you happen to be in the field of medicine or mental health. Or, you know, living a life in which you meet other people.