In my Postmodern American Fiction class this past semester, we were assigned to write a page reflection each week on the book that we read. I actually really enjoyed writing these reflections because they were a chance to choose a specific aspect of the book and discuss it in depth without needed to come to any precise conclusions or arguments. In fact, I liked it so much that I’ve decided to continue on the process this summer! Along with reviews I’ll be sharing these reflections, brief discussions on novels that I’ve read without any value judgment or rating on my part. Let me know what you think!
I cried two times while reading The Year of Magical Thinking: first at the point when Joan Didion says “I needed to be alone so that he could come back. This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking” and then at the very end of the novel when she says “You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change. He told me that. No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that” (Didion 33; 227). As someone who has never actually cried while reading a book before, the fact that I was suddenly crying actual tears while sitting a table in Emerson with my friends worriedly asking me what was wrong was quite a surprise. Why did this book have such an intense effect on me? An obvious answer would be the terribly sad subject matter; however, I have read plenty of sad books before without a similar result. What was it about this sad book in particular made that made it hit me so hard?
The difference here seems to be the way the memoir is structured, particularly how the narration expands and contracts like an accordion. She describes this expansive nature of her own thinking as the “vortex,” a sort of spiral she plummets down whenever something triggers a memory from the past. A clear example of how this vortex works is when her thinking about one of the books she had written sparks a spiral about her daughter, Quintana:
I had been writing that book when Quintana was three.
When Quintana was three.
There it was, the vortex.
Quintana at three. The night she had put a seed pod from the garden up her nose and I had driven her to Children’s Hospital. The pediatrician who specialized in seed pods had arrived in his dinner jeacket. The next night she had put another seed pod up her nose, wanting to the repeat the interesting adventure (Didion 110).
Here we see how one small detail triggers a connection with a memory, resulting in an opening up of the narrative to include this digressive departure from the main story she was telling. Yet at the same time, these memories also make up the main story. Through these winding paths of memory, Didion asserts the inevitable importance of the past and the seeming impossibility of entirely escaping or avoiding the mind’s reliance on the past in the midst of grief.
Perhaps the reason this memoir made me cry is not solely the narrative structure itself, but the way the narrative structure so closely reflects Didion’s thought processes and the inner workings of her mind in the midst of her grief. While reading those last few lines of the book and the last repeated words (“he did tell me that”) I could just feel the desperation, the yearning for a resolution or an answer that she could not find even in the process of writing this book. I have been fortunate enough to never have experienced such a loss or intense grief thus far in my life, but Didion’s writing made me fear that feeling immensely. Through this memoir’s accordion-like structure, Didion was able to convey as close to the feeling of grief as possible, considering the limitations of language that prevent it from ever being exactly expressed with absolute accuracy.
Thoughts on The Year of Magical Thinking? Have you ever read a memoir that has resonated deeply with you this way? Let me know in the comments section below!