A True Writer Can Turn Ramblings into Art

Book Review of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Published by Vintage.

If you have ever stolen someone’s journal, you know it’s really not that exciting of a read. Rambling complaints are not fun. But in this journal-like novel, Didion’s writing kept my eyes glued to the page until it was over. In her essay, Why I Write, Didion explains that she writes to find out what she is thinking, to find out what is going to happen to her (in nonfiction) or her characters (fiction). (See my recent post, Writing as Discovery, for more about this.) Written during the year after her husband’s death, this book is exactly that. As the internal dialogue goes on, the reader can clearly see Didion trying to deal with her grief. At times she recognizes it but still cannot control it. Our desire to continue reading is driven by the same thing that drove her to write this book; to discover how she learns to live with her grief.


This piece of nonfiction is a first person narrative that exposes the extreme grief of the author, Joan Didion, after the death of her husband. The novel begins with the scene of his death, witnessed firsthand by Didion. The novel flows through the next year, peeling away the layers of grief and heartache that Didion experiences. Flashbacks paint a full picture of the couple’s life together while present problems keep the plot moving forward. This novel is a perfect example of how writing in specifics can create a truly universal picture. As it says in the description, this novel “will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.”


This novel begins with the climax. The husband’s death is quick and, frankly, not very dramatic. A separate but related plot line takes over the forward momentum of the story while many flashbacks create a full picture of Didion’s marriage. The structure of the story is not solid. It is not exciting or suspenseful. But it is a page turner. Didion’s writing flows so effortlessly and she explains things with such clarity and beauty that it made me want to read on.


Didion uses repetition of certain words and phrases throughout the book to keep the reader grounded. Because the words/phrases are unique, it brings the reader back to the specific memory in which she introduced it. The many flashbacks create a jumpy timeline. These trigger words—as I will call them—help remind the reader of where they have been and help tie the entire story together in a loosely plotted book.


In the novel, Didion admits that she believes “information is control.” Therefore, we see her incorporate a lot of research into this book. She shares research about the science of health issue that arises. She quotes reactions others have had to the sudden death of a loved one. She brings sections of her and her husband’s previously published work into this novel. She quotes poems that are stuck in her head. She takes excerpts from books including The Hour of Our Death by Philipe Ariés and an article about cardiac arrest from the Massachusetts Medical Society. The research is diverse but always directly relates.

In a fictional novel, this research could be woven into the book seamlessly, passed off as the character’s or narrator’s own knowledge. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion creates the impression that the reader is learning and growing side-by-side with her. She presents the research as she discovers it to enhance this perception—and it works very well!


In its own way, this book is a rapid page-turner but I would not recommend it to action-seekers and plot-twist enthusiasts. Although the internal, emotional dialogue does not appeal to everyone, the book did become a National Bestseller and won the National Book Award. Personally, the day I picked it up, I only put it down for lunch, dinner and to great my boyfriend home from work. I finished it the next day. Without a doubt, I will read this book again someday.

How I found this book: Honestly, the title caught my eye in a book store and Joan Didion’s name alone is legendary. I put it on my Christmas list and was grateful enough to receive it from my boyfriend’s parents. Thank you!

About Sarah JS

Aspiring writer, lover of words, book nerd, working editor, and permanent student of the world

Posted on February 25, 2014, in Book Review and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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