A Year of Magical Thinking

Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what... you ask for (within the price limit).

At least that's how it works in my family at Christmas. My family is so huge, and so organized, that years ago we developed a Kris Kringle system for giving gifts. This is not unfamiliar to most people. But perhaps our Kris Kringle website concept is. The idea: Pick a name out of the "hat," send an email to my aunt telling her what you want, get it on Christmas Eve. She creates the spectacular Faughey family Christmas website, complete with signing and dancing snowmen, pictures of last year's festivities, and a link next to your Kringle's name directing you to correct shopping venue. Simple. Easy. Brilliant!

This year I asked for books -- books I thought I'd probably never get to read, considering I have a four month old baby at home -- because my Amazon Wishlist was growing long and feeling a bit neglected. So when it came time for me to open my Christmas present no one was surprised when I said, Yeah! Books!

"Tell us what you got!"

"O-kay," I played along, as if they had no idea. "Oh this one I'm really excited about. It's called Knitting Vintage Socks."

Oooooooooooooo, they sang in unison -- as though I was the conductor.

"And this one is supposed to be really good, it’s called Prep."

"What's it about?"

"Um, it's about some kids in prep school."

Oooooooooooooo, again - a little weaker.

"And this one is called The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, and it's about... Well, it's about death."


I turned to see my aunt's pursed lips and scrunched up nose -- she looked as though she'd just been given a mouthful of vinegar. She'd heard of the book, but Why?? was all she asked.

I don't know why I wanted The Year of Magical Thinking. I'm a young woman, recently married and a new mother, living in a beautiful new apartment; life is at its exciting beginning for me, and Didion's book is about losing all of that. In fact, her book is sad enough without knowing that a year after she lost her husband, just weeks before the book was due out, she lost her only daughter to the mysterious illness detailed in the text. I knew that, and yet I was drawn to those pages like none other in recent months. A few nights I even lay in bed, my thumb-sucking daughter at my side, reading passages out loud to her (of course, my sing-song tone slightly different perhaps than Didion intended).

I finished most of Magical Thinking one night I kept the light on until 3 am. My daughter doesn't even keep me up that late, so I can assure you the book must be good. The parts I enjoyed the most were those that gave me glimpses of Didion's life with her husband and daughter, when they lived in California and threw fabulous parties, went swimming in pools and noticed peacocks strutting around their garden. Then I enjoyed their life in New York, starting their early morning walks together in Central Park and then going their separate ways, working until late in the night and then going for dinner at some swank restaurant. But the parts that had me hooked were the ones where they fought -- you only got snippets of those ("Why do you always have to be right?") -- and the time they flew to Hawaii to "save their marriage" (which Didion wrote about in an article for Life). It seemed that life could be wonderful in the midst of the horrible, or horrible in the midst of the wonderful, and that made it feel so real. Familiar. I needed to know that, to be reminded of that as I sat inside my apartment, too cold to go outside, with company too young for conversation, with days growing longer and darker.

But of course this is a book about grief and the process of grieving, which leads to her title about magical thinking. Sometimes I wish for that magical thinking to come upon me before any kind of grief does. She imagined her dead husband walking in the door at any moment, in need of his shoes, and so she never got rid of them. I imagine myself up all night with a really good book, and so I pile them up next to my bed and still ask for more. I wondered, must we grieve for people -- can we grieve for time? Can we be living the happiest time of our lives, and still feel some kind of grief?

Magical Thinking is now on my lower bookshelf, where my daughter's restless and destructive hands might find it in a few months. Of course, I'll count myself lucky if they do. I'm off to read Prep, a book about some kids in prep school. I hope to finish it before next Christmas -- I hope to finish it in one glorious night.

So it turns out, at Christmas time, you just might find, you get what you ask for, and that could be just what you need.

-Deirdre Faughey

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