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The way we were

In precise, profound prose, Joan Didion details a year that encompassed her husband's death and her daughter's critical illness

The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
Knopf, 227 pp., $23.95

Joan Didion has long grappled with what is out of our control and what is within our control, life's uneasy balance, or imbalance, between circumstance and free will. ''The Year of Magical Thinking" forces her to confront this issue in an especially personal way: It deals with the death of Didion's husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, which occurs in the midst of their daughter's hospitalization for a winter flu that had turned life-threatening. (After nearly two years of treatment, seeming recoveries, and crushing relapses, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael died at the age of 39 on Aug. 26, after this book was completed.)

Despite his recent heart ailments, Dunne's death is sudden, cruelly and tragically timed. ''Life changes fast," Didion writes. ''Life changes in the instant." Yet even with one crisis heaped on another, Didion remains, in the words of one observer, ''a pretty cool customer." This expertly crafted facade hides her grief-nourished delusions, the ''demented" state to which the title refers.

Didion has always known well the pure dread that lies underneath steely resolve, and her nonfiction evinces her various attempts to establish control; her writing, with its tautness and precision, is itself a way of imposing order on the illogical, preserving sanity in the face of turmoil. Remaining a cool customer has been Didion's life's work. She doesn't do the feeling for you, but her unfussy prose elicits a rush of emotion in the reader, whether she is describing runaway teenagers in Haight-Ashbury in ''Slouching Towards Bethlehem" or reporting a deathbed conversation with her mother in ''Where I Was From." Witness the impact that careful calibration and dire momentum can achieve, in this passage from ''The Year of Magical Thinking":

''I have no memory of sirens. I have no memory of traffic. When we arrived at the emergency entrance to the hospital the gurney was already disappearing into the building. A man was waiting in the driveway. Everyone else in sight was wearing scrubs. He was not. 'Is this the wife,' he said to the driver, then turned to me. 'I'm your social worker,' he said, and I guess that is when I must have known."

When introduced to philosophical theories in college, ''my attention veered inexorably back to the specific," Didion once acknowledged, and here she collects not only telling details like the lack of scrubs, but dates, amounts, and terminology. In order to re-create exactly what happened the night Dunne died, she returns time and again to the log her building's doorman keeps, and when she arranges the bills in Dunne's wallet, ''taking special care to interleaf twenties with twenties, tens with tens," she imagines that Dunne can see her ''handling things." During the course of her daughter's illness, Didion learns that a ''midline shift" in the brain means a poor prognosis, and that ''leaving the table" is surgical jargon for surviving a procedure. She decides that ''information is control."

So is withholding it. Didion's reticence in her previous works is well known. She has written about her migraines but little about her marriage; Dunne makes what amount to cameo appearances. In the essay ''On Going Home," he is the wary outsider in the company of Didion's insular family, but he is also the rescuer in ''Goodbye to All That" who tries to remedy Didion's depression by marrying her (according to Didion, ''a very good thing to do but badly timed").

But in this memoir, Dunne emerges as a richly observed character of moods and vulnerability, given to plainspokenness and acting as Didion's guide into the manly, sometimes risibly Hemingway-esque, journalistic world. The book is an exacting self-examination, but it is also a heartbreaking, though far from sentimentalized, love letter, engrossing in its candor. The relationship between these occasional screenwriters is endearingly cinematic: Dunne plays a Scotch-drinking, meat-and-potatoes Spencer Tracy to Didion's angular, eccentric Katharine Hepburn. It is John who knows that Joan's editor won't phone her until halftime of a football game, John who instructs her on the proper sign-off when you file your article by wire. It, too, is John who tries to get to the bottom of things when Quintana's condition worsens, as he demands, ''How does 'flu' morph into whole-body infection?"

He also plays the haunted Tracy to Didion's Hepburn-like stoic. A few months before he dies, he says he wants to go to Paris, but she is reluctant: ''He said he had a sense that if he did not go to Paris in November he would never again go to Paris. I interpreted this as blackmail. That settles it then, I said, we're going. He left the table. We did not speak in any meaningful way for two days."

Didion deftly, movingly, writes of other presentiments. Dunne surprises her by giving her a new phrase for use in her own writing; later, in a taxi, returning from Quintana's hospital room, Dunne catalogs his regrets, calls his achievements ''worthless." In the '70s Didion had suggested that they buy a house in Honolulu. In the cab, seemingly out of nowhere, Dunne says to his wife, ''You were right about Hawaii."

Referring to their ''long run of luck," Didion allows the reader glimpses of what it was like to have been part of a successful writing couple. Jetting between New York and Los Angeles and Honolulu, the two enjoyed some mighty rarefied air. Glamorous backdrops included the Hotel Bristol in Paris, Pebble Beach, and frequent stays at the Beverly Wilshire; Didion remembers boarding a plane barefoot to ride first class to the Cannes Film Festival in 1971. When Dunne dies, Didion feels an urgency to call The Los Angeles Times, lest they find out from reading The New York Times.

But the trimmings of a privileged life offer little solace, a point that the book makes implicitly, as it nearly moans with loss and loneliness. In the matter-of-fact, almost comma-less prose that is her hallmark, Didion illuminates the bond between husband and wife in terms both homely and indelible: ''Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices." That was the real run of luck.

Drew Limsky is a New York-based writer who is completing a book on Joan Didion's nonfiction.

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