Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Year of Magical Thinking

I'm late coming to this memoir, I know. It's hard for me to read books during the academic year if I'm not using them in my teaching or research, so stuff gets saved up. But I was talking to a friend about this book recently and realized that I really had no reason not to read it. I did hold off during the 48-hour book challenge, figuring I might want to savor it a bit, but in the end I think I read it just as quickly as anything else. (No, I didn't keep track.)

A lot of people seem not to like Didion much. They find her self-important, smug, neurasthenic. A college classmate characterized her as a snob when we read "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream." And I suppose characterizing the San Bernardino Valley as "the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew . . . where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion but hard to buy a book" could be called snobbish, though I believe it's also pretty accurate, or was at the time.

Anyway. I liked Didion then. When I moved to California after college I thought of her description of the Santa Ana winds when I first experienced them: "the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread." In retrospect, that wasn't the best time to start graduate school. And there's a description of changing lanes on the freeway in Play it as it Lays that I always think of when I drive in LA--it's just that accurate, that true to my experience. But I haven't really read much Didion since the early stuff, save an occasional piece in the NYRB.

So what I didn't expect in The Year of Magical Thinking was that it would occasionally make me laugh out loud. Not, perhaps, in a guffawing, you've-got-to-hear-this way. More like a chuckle of bemused recognition and, maybe, shame? Because there's something in me that really identified with the Didion of the book--not the California privilege, but the "core belief in my ability to control events"--something she also calls "management skills"--and the persistent need to be right. The Didion that, I think, many people don't like.

So this passage resonated with me in that slightly embarrassed chuckle of recognition way:

Why do you always have to be right, I remembered John saying.
It was a complaint, a charge, part of a fight.
He never understood that in my own mind I was never right. Once in 1971, when we were moving from Franklin Avenue to Malibu, I found a message stuck behind a picture I was taking down. The message was from someone to whom I had been close before I married John. He had spent a few weeks with us in the house on Franklin Avenue. This was the message: "You were wrong." I did not know what I had been wrong about but the possibilities seemed infinite.

I fully expect to find such messages--and to know, immediately and without doubt, that they are for me--if and when we ever leave this house. Indeed, it might be a good reason not to move.

I also loved the scene she remembers of driving past the now-empty lot where a house they had sold once stood. The realtor had encouraged them to give signed copies of the books they had written in that house to the new owners--who had razed the house within the year. "My first reaction was fury. I wanted the books back."

Again, this is not necessarily a nice person, but she feels very familiar to me.

This may be smug, too:
Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way "competitive," that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.
But again, even the slightly fussy construction (why withhold that adjective, "competitive," for so long?) sounds right to me, familiar. Which is why I found the book both completely engrossing and oddly disappointing. I want her to recognize that needing-to-be-right for the failing (I think) it is, to change, to disavow it somehow. But this is also profoundly a book about how even grief, even mourning, does not really change one. She is still Joan Didion, which is why the loss of her husband is so great: he was so much a part of her that she doesn't quite know how to go on being herself, though she still must.

I don't much want to see the one-woman show based on the book. I'm not sure I'd even find a reason to read it again. But I'm glad I read it.


  1. I'm about 2/3 of the way through this book and am finding so much self-recognition in the whole need to control, that it's making me put the book down for weeks at a time. I don't usually do that.

  2. I'm going to sit this one out. Right now, other people's grief sometimes hurts more than my own.