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Essayist Didion courageously examines grief

"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

In "The Year of Magical Thinking" (Knopf, 2005), Joan Didion - one of America's finest writers - takes us through her struggle to understand the grave illness of her grown daughter and the unexpected death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Her husband dies while their daughter lies in a coma in the intensive care unit.

Didion is known for her cool, clear eye. She writes essays for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and other publications that count on her powers of rational observation.

In the hospital, where her husband has been taken after a heart attack, the doctor and a social worker come out: "There was a silence. 'He's dead isn't he,' I heard myself say to the doctor. The doctor looked at the social worker. 'It's okay,' the social worker said. 'She's a pretty cool customer.' They took me into the curtained cubicle ... ."

Against the background of her rational observations and her habit of being a "pretty cool customer," we see Didion lose her grip. Always the reporter, she lets us glimpse her irrationality, her "magical thinking."

After Dunne's death, Didion refuses to give his shoes away because she knows he'll need them when he comes home. "I remember thinking that I had to discuss this with John. There was nothing I did not discuss with John. Because we were writers and both worked at home, our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices."

Didion writes, "People assumed that we must be … 'competitive,' that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This is so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage."

Her writing is as condensed as a poem.

Didion's grief is double: before her husband's death, their only child, Quintana, contracts a flu that rapidly becomes life-threatening septic shock. Quintana is in a coma at the time of her father's death, and she later falls and severely injures her brain.

Despite its subject matter, the book is not, surprisingly, depressing. Although Didion has to deal with extremely tragic events, she has the courage to keep her chin up. She may be confused, but she is never maudlin.

"The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted," Didion writes. "On most surface levels I seemed rational. To the average observer I would have appeared to fully understand that death is irreversible. … 'Bringing him back' had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick. By late summer I was beginning to see this clearly. 'Seeing it clearly' did not yet allow me to give away the clothes he would need."

Sometimes it is the job of the writer to go into hell and report back.

"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

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