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''The Year of Magical Thinking''

By RD Heldenfels Published: December 29, 2005

Joan Didion has done a remarkable thing with her book, something many authors long to accomplish. She has described a universal experience by sticking to specific, personal details.

As I noted in the last post, ''The Year of Magical Thinking'' describes what Didion went through following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, on Dec. 30, 2003. His sudden, unexpected death was not the only burden Didion had to shoulder, as it came while their daughter, Quintana, was in an extended battle against life-threatening illness.

Someone who turns to writers for solace and explanation, Didion quotes often from poetry and research studies as she tries to get through these paired trials. But she also takes us deeply into her own reflection, despair, angry, confusion and search for understanding and explanation of what has happened. Time and again, what I read echoed in what I felt after my first wife's death, whether it was in Didion's wondering if she could have done something more to save her husband, or her seeking signs in their pasts, or her expecting to discuss something with Dunne -- only to remember that he was dead.

She even went through seemingly contradictory behaviors: on the one hand being unwilling to get rid of some of his belongings (out of the belief that he might yet return and need them) and avoiding things that reminded her too much of their being together.

Been there, done that, I thought more than once. And I felt it more forcefully than I have from other books I have read about loss and grieving. Didion gets to those been-there/done-that moments for everyone by avoiding the grand statement. She is not interested in telling us how everyone else will feel. She is interested in telling us what she felt, and how she thought her way through it, and the grandeur comes in our recognition of her pain.

I read the book somewhat slowly, because I had to set it aside now and then to absorb what it said, or to think about the parallels to other lives, including my own. I expect to read it again.

Of course, Didion is a writer I have gone back to before, rereading essays in ''Slouching Toward Bethelehem,'' say, or ''The White Album,'' just because I liked her writing and her point of view. (My first wife was also a Didion fan. I still have two copies of ''Slouching,'' one that was hers, and one that she gave me.) I have also read, and reread, a lot of Dunne's work. But this book is one that I know I will revisit for more than just the writing, and the story of two writers I admire. It's a magnificent piece.

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