Joan Didion has always been a reporter, but not the type of reporter whose persona becomes part of the story. Instead, the stories, details, and tone have defined her as the reporter. Didion always has remained cool, detached, and trustworthy, providing insight without theatrics.
How could anyone write about the sudden death of a husband and the simultaneous critical illness of a daughter with the same approach? Could you? Could you step back from the moment when your husband of 40 years collapsed and died at the dinner table? Could you write about having to keep this from your daughter to avoid further endangering her fragile health? Could you remember, sort through, and write enough of the details of that first bereaved year, moment for moment?
"It's ok... she's a pretty cool customer," says a social worker before the hospital gives back her husband's silver clip, watch, cell phone, clothes. She wonders "what an uncool customer would be allowed to do. Break down? Require sedation? Scream?" At home, she places the cell phone in its charger before she goes to bed.
Much of the book details the life they had lived with their only daughter, Quintana Roo: their travels, their work, their homes on two continents. Past and present and past cycle through the pages, stopping for details that would unhinge many. Has her daughter sustained brain damage from her illness? Did John Dunne have a presentiment of his death?
The "magical thinking" of the title represents thoughts that a child might have, thoughts that one might not expect of a "cool customer." The most striking : her inability to discard her dead husband's shoes because "he would need shoes if he was to return...The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought. I still have not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power."
To me, the questions raised by these simple sentences define the book. When I first read it, I wrote one note that was based on a question that Didion found written in one of her husband's books (in blue, fountain-pen ink) - What is the experience and what is the meaning?
There it is, the basic existential question. I think that neither the experience nor the meaning exists on its own. Only the observer is real. The observer determines both history (the event) and its consequences (or, its meaning).
What Joan Didion has done here is to include us in her observations, responses, and thoughts on a brutal experience. Is she a "cool customer"? I don't think so. I think she has used her skills to show us what we might neglect to see in the aftermath of a personal tragedy. I hope she has taught me to do the same, to allow all of my own skills to inhabit and define my responses, and to avoid judging those responses whether of not they fit anyone else's definitions of emotional reality.