First, last, always

Joan Didion’s style is well-known and instantly recognizable; she’s a master at the delicate art of calling into question all the reader’s assumptions about whatever subject she takes up, but doing so in the most delicate way.

In books such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From, Didion describes what she sees, but her interpretations of scenes and events are rife with qualifiers and disclaimers. She’s made a trademark of actively inviting her readers to question even the reliability of her reporter’s voice. That’s been a useful approach to take for subjects that have varied from popular culture to murders to the hippie culture in Haight-Ashbury to American politics and to the history of her native California. But these all have been subjects that can be safely approached by a writer like Didion, armed as she is with a detective’s hardened, keen eye and a Jeopardy champion’s collection of information both trivial and relevant.

What’s amazing about Didion’s latest book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is her ability to keep these skills at her command when faced with the subject all of us most fear: the great upheaval that accompanies the death of the person we love most in the world. What’s even more amazing is her willingness to acknowledge how little these skills are worth in the face of grief.

The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the Sacramento native’s annus horriblus: the year that followed the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, from a massive heart attack as the couple sat down to dinner. It was also a year in which Didion’s only child fought a losing battle against a massive infection (Quintana Roo Dunne Michael died the same week The Year of Magical Thinking was published).

Concerned as it is with grief and loss, Didion hangs on to her trademark style, but she also transforms it. She turns, logocentric bibliophile that she is, to the literature on death, dying and loss: poetry, psychological treatises and scientific journals. But she goes beyond her usual questioning of the premises of the texts she examines to ask, in a far more personal fashion than she ever has before, what all these words and ideas mean to her, in the apartment where “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

This is by far the most personal of Didion’s nonfiction works. A gifted essayist, she’s never hesitated to make herself present in what she writes; that’s how she became one of the pillars of the new journalism. Still, there’s always been the sense of a private person holding back; a selectivity in what she opts to include that carries with it a great sense of decorum. She has been, as the social worker at the hospital where her husband was declared dead calls her, “a cool customer.”

And although she returns to that phrase throughout the book, it is with a kind of wistfulness; the depth of emotion she demonstrates in her unwillingness to get rid of Dunne’s shoes (“He’ll need them when he returns,” she writes) is anything but the expression of “a cool customer.”

This is an incredibly brave book, and while no one would envy her the pain of losing both husband and daughter in one year, we cannot help but envy the vulnerability that makes such love possible. The Year of Magical Thinking is a chronicle of love as much as of loss; like all literature of grief, it celebrates life. In this case, the life in question is the one Didion shared with Dunne: partners first, last and always.