The Color of Grief

Joan Didion, famous for her dry-eyed unsentimentality, faces down tragedy and insanity and emerges to face it down again

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In the days and weeks following her husband's death, Didion found herself experiencing something she had never known before: true grief. It was different, she discovered, from other forms of sadness. "Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be," she writes. "Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life."

She also found that it came with a particular kind of madness, an actual insanity. "There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible," she writes. In other words, she actually began to think that if she played her cards right, she could bring her husband back to her. "I was thinking as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome." That is the meaning of the book's title.

When Quintana woke from her coma, her mother had to tell her three times that her father was dead; she kept forgetting. Didion obsessively reviewed the medical records from the night Dunne died, plotting out the chronology precisely--the call to the hospital, the resuscitation attempts, the final pronouncement. Magical Thinking also skips backward in time, via memories and echoes and chance connections, to call up a shimmering portrait of her unique marriage to Dunne, the union of two talented, ambitious, workaholic writers who were each other's first readers and editors. To make her grief real, Didion shows us what she has lost.

Magical Thinking is an act of consummate literary bravery, a writer known for her clarity narrating the loss of that clarity, allowing us to watch her mind as it becomes clouded with grief. But the book also reproduces, in its formal progression from those first raw, frenzied impressions to a more composed account of mourning, Didion's recovery. She literally wrote herself back to sanity. "Writing is the only way I've ever gained clarity," she says. "I don't go through life with a lot of clear-formed thoughts. It's not till I sit down and write that I really know what I think."

Real life added a tragic coda to The Year of Magical Thinking. On Aug. 26, the unthinkable happened again: at 39, Quintana died after a long illness. Didion, already a widow, became a grieving mother as well. "I haven't started being crazy for Quintana yet," she says, almost matter-of-factly, "and I'm sort of past being crazy for John. Sanity came back, and now I'm sort of still in shock about Quintana."

Unsentimental as ever, she dismisses any suggestion that she is simply being strong. "You don't have an option," she says. "It's another one of those deals in which you don't have an option." And then, amazingly, she laughs. •

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