One of my favorite books, that happens to be about grief, is The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) by Joan Didion. I found this book at the thrift store, and when I finally took it off my shelf in the basement to move it upstairs to my nightstand, I ended up cracking it open just for a sneak peek. I didn’t go upstairs with it until I had read for at least an hour. I got lost in the narrative of her experiences with the sudden death of her husband.
If you aren’t familiar with Didion, you should be. And if you aren’t yet thirty, perhaps wait until you are. I tried Didion in my twenties and didn’t appreciate her. Now that I’m a tiny bit older, I do. But if you’re an experienced and mature twenty-something, then go for it. Don’t let my experience with one of the greatest American essayists stop you.
But today’s post is about a book that reminded me of The Year of Magical Thinking and one that was recommended by another great book blogger. Check out Rosemary and Reading Glasses, and thanks to Carolyn for introducing me to this memoir about grief, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief (2009) by Ann Hood.
Comfort is Hood’s experience with losing her five-year-old daughter to a virulent strain of strep. One day, her tiny daughter was dancing and eating dinner in the backyard with the family. The next, she was in the hospital in and out of consciousness; then she died. It is a parent’s worst nightmare, and one that I felt viscerally through reading the book.
The book is an exploration of the grieving process and seemed to be composed of smaller essays about Hood’s experiences with losing her daughter. I cried through it. It’s hard not to. Part of me wanted to be cynical and hard and not shed tears for a suburban child who happened to die of illness when so many other children around the globe die in car bombings or from starvation or neglect or infanticide, etc., etc. Yet, this portrayal of a mother’s love and loss is moving, and I found myself thinking about the tragedy in my own terms. How would I react if one of my daughters died?
Reading books like this (and I mean emotionally charged books, fiction or nonfiction) can really affect me. I mope for days afterward thinking about the hardships of the protagonist and internalizing those to an unhealthy degree. I find that I can take on those emotions and live them out, even if I have no cause to do so based in reality. I did this a little bit with Hood’s book, but in a good way. I took those emotions that seemed to overwhelm and I channeled them into hugging my daughters a little tighter and in being a little more patient with them. I could not imagine losing either one of them at a young age to illness or any other cause. The grief would be unbearable.
Hood’s grief seemed to be so as well, and she described it in terms of never going away, but instead settling in a way that eventually became manageable. She found comfort through many things, including time, knitting, food, memories, and a new daughter.
Hug your children a little longer today. I know I will.
Emily, thanks for sharing the story and advice. That would be the worst nightmare imaginable. All the best, BTG
“The Year of Magical Thinking” is one of my favorite books–extremely touching and tender. I love Didion. I have “Blue Nights” as well but haven’t read it yet. I read “Play It As It Lays” a few years ago–such a different vibe than her memoirs.
I was not familiar with “Comfort,” so thank you for the recommendation.
Another wonderful book on grief is “A Grief Observed” by CS Lewis. It’s not as well known as his other books–it was basically a journal of his grieving process when he lost his wife to cancer and how he struggled with his faith in the aftermath.
I enjoy your blog, thank you for sharing you thoughts.
I will look into the Lewis book. I have Play It As It Lays on my shelf right now. Fiction, right? A change for Didion but I am looking forward to it.
Really interesting recommendations. Thanks 🙂
Thanks for reading!
Both of these books sound like a good read, I’ll have to check them out. I don’t have children, but I have pets that are like my kids. If I lost one of them I don’t know what I would do. Thanks for sharing.
I hope you find them worth your time!
I have had A Year of Magical Thinking on my shelf for a long time, but have always chosen other books ahead of it. Both of these sound so good. Have you read The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood? I really liked it, but what I am remembering is that one of the characters suddenly loses her little girl and cannot cope with the grief. It’s interesting to now learn that the author also lost her daughter almost in the same way. So sad. I am almost afraid to read these books.
I have heard of The Obituary Writer but I haven’t read it. I didn’t realize it was so closely connected to the author’s life. I’m intrigued now!
I don’t know how connected to her life the rest of the book is, but it was a good book (at least I thought so). When I read it, it was new and I hadn’t heard much about it, so I was pleasantly surprised. It’s quick too!
Oh, I don’t know if I could read either book — it would kill me!
I hear you. I get so emotional with these types!
I have a really hard time reading these kinds of books. As if by admitting that these things happen, I’m opening the door for it in my own life. Completely ridiculous. Books eh?
I understand. It is hard to read about this stuff! Somebody told me a story of a young man who was recently paralyzed at a trampoline park, so now I’m pretty sure I’ll never let my kids go there again.
I feel the same “superstition”!
“The Year of Magical Thinking” is one of my favorite books in that it makes me look at life and love through appreciative eyes. You might like Didion’s follow-up, “Blue Nights,” although it contains more grief (but also love and joy). I haven’t read “Comfort,” but I did like “The Knitting Circle” by Ann Hood, in which a grieving mother much like Hood is helped through the stages of mourning via the life stories of other women.
I am going to have to try Blue Nights. I hadn’t heard about that one!
Wow. I started Didion’s book and couldn’t finish it…because I can’t even imagine losing my husband. So I put it away. I also heard of Hood’s book (through Carolyn’s blog and another mom friend of mine who strongly recommended it) and decided quickly that I would not be able to read it. I’m still not sure that I can, but reading your post is at least making me think twice about it. I love how you describe the aftermath of reading her book – that it made you appreciate your own girls all the more. Maybe I need that kick in the pants. I think I sometimes take my son for granted…staring at my screen instead of giving him my full attention, etc.
I know. Being a parent is so hard. I feel guilty if I’m not completely attentive, but then I feel like I can’t get things done if I don’t spend some time away! It sounds like you are even more sensitive than I am to this stuff. I would say don’t push yourself to read it if you just can’t. There are too many other books!
Thanks for the mention, Emily! I’m glad you liked Comfort, even though it’s a difficult read (I think I posted about it along with The Obituary Writer, which definitely draws on Ms. Hood’s own experiences). I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about The Year of Magical Thinking, but people kept recommending it to me after my fiance died, and I couldn’t deal with reading about a widow’s experience when I couldn’t claim the term (illogical, I know, but then, that’s grief). I still think I should give it a couple years before I try it, but I’m glad it has your high opinion!
You are most welcome, friend! I can’t even imagine what you’ve been through, and I think you are absolutely right to give yourself as much time as you need before reading Didion’s book. I remember that you paired Hood’s two books, and now I know why! I really need to read The Obituary Writer now.
Thanks, Emily. 🙂
The Year of Magical Thinking is a wonderful book, although since reading it I have lost both my parents (within a year of each other) and gained twins, so I think it would be too raw to re-read the Didiom or attempt Comfort. If you like poetry, check out a stunning collection called A Scattering by Christopher Reid dealing with the death of his wife. They are incredibly moving.
That sounds like a fascinating way to present and write about grief. I may check it out. I also read a comic book (really) once of a man’s experiences of his wife dying of cancer. It was moving as well. There are so many forms to write about this stuff, and likely as many as ways to deal with it as well.
Hey! I’m new to your blog! But I was really intrigued by this post because I’ve been wanting to read more Didion. I recently got “Where I Was From” a book on her family’s history, but I really want to read this one.
Thanks for the awesome post!
Where I Was From was my first experience with Didion and I couldn’t get through it! I tried it again later and it worked, once I grew up a little. Thanks for reading and reminding me of that book! 🙂
The Year of Magical Thinking is one of my all time favorite books, I read it as a 19/20 year old when I found it on the shelf in my University library; and even though I couldn’t relate to being a wife or a mother Joan Didion’s writing struck me deep within. Truly Beautiful.
I don’t know why but I often find myself drawn to books like this, tales of grieving and surviving through sadness. One I particularly love (as much as you can love a sad memoir about the death of a loved one) is Two Kisses For Maddy – which I pre-ordered when it was announced for release as I was a reader of the author’s – Matt Logelin – blog (http://www.mattlogelin.com). It is about the birth of his daughter Maddy and the unexpected death of his wife 24 hours later. I think it is a very real insight into his grieving process.
Oh my goodness! How tragic. I tend to be drawn in by tragedy as well. Thanks for the recommendation, and I am glad to hear that you enjoyed Didion at a young age.
I loved The Year of magical Thinking also. It is a true window into the grief process. I agree with your assessment that it might not appeal to a younger crowd.
I like what you say about it being a window into grief. Sometimes dealing with those emotions are easier when we see somebody else doing it.
I haven’t read Comfort, but I just reviewed The Year of Magical Thinking a week or two ago. I am getting interested in reading Ann Hood, as I have seen several interesting reviews of her books lately.
I hope you enjoy Hood! I have yet to try her fiction.
I’ll let you know!
Chanced upon your blog. Will read Magical Thinking.
I hope you like it!
I have read this really cool book so check it out!
Emanation: Hope’s Sacrifice (Volume 1)