Now that I’ve read The Year of Magical Thinking once, and listened to it on audio twice, I have a respect for the writing and story that I missed the first time around. Not that I didn’t already respect Joan Didion’s writing. Hey, she’s Joan Didion. But the first time I read this book it struck the wrong cord — it seemed like so much “we were somebody” talk and name dropping, e.g.: when John and I spent that month in Honolulu and swam in the grotto, the summer we ate at Morton’s every evening and had shrimp quesadilla, the jacket John wore on the set of “Up Close and Personal,” the house in Malibu where I floated flowers with candles in the pool before a dinner party, oh our last trip to Paris, etc… In focusing on these things I didn’t so much miss the point, but was absolutely distracted from what the book was about.
Which brings me to the device of repetition.
I have a thing about repetition. I would often rather watch a movie I’ve seen 50 times than something new, something untested. (Ask my poor husband this. If he hears the theme of The Godfather playing on TV, he knows he’ll be stuck with it for the rest of the day.) I would rather watch re-runs of TV series like All in the Family, or The Sopranos, or ER than give a new show a chance. And I read books (certain books) over and over again. I re-read (or re-listen to) to books for a number of reasons. Sometimes just because I love the story, but more often because I think of the book like a math problem: I’m trying to figure out how the writer makes this WORK, therefore making structure, repetition, and cadence into a complex set of equations that churns out the right answer in the end. Didion even describes her husband John doing the same thing with Sophie’s Choice, re-reading that book one summer just to see how it Styron made it work.
What I appreciated about The Year of Magical Thinking these last couple of times around was how Didion tells her story in a circular motion, wrapping around and around again to key phrases that encapsulate the overall themes of memory and recall. And in that circling manages to say something new about grief.
Today I keep thinking about one line, returned to often in the book: Gawain said, I tell you, I will not live two more days. Like a musical crescendo, this one sentence encompasses more and more power as the story circles on. Brilliant, I tell you.
Joan Didion, you are truly brilliant.