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Joan Didion: On Grief and Isolation
At the recent 2005 Chicago Humanities Festival, Joan Didion appeared to provide reflections about her new book, "The Year of Magical Thinking", as well as some of the feelings that were evoked by the events described in her book. Joan Didion's memoir is about grieving for her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. The couple had been married since 1964. Her thoughts presented in Chicago were starkly realistic--an attitude shaped by the sudden death of her husband and her only child. She described the almost immediate dramatic, life-altering effect that she experienced: "The notion that I could control things died hard...I do not believe in an afterlife; I wish I did."
Dunne died of a heart attack at the end of 2003. His death came suddenly, just as the couple was sitting down to dinner after visiting their daughter in the hospital, who had fallen into a coma after being treated for pneumonia and septic shock. In her memoir, Didion contemplates how the rituals of daily life were fundamentally altered when her life's companion was taken from her.
Her impressions, both sharply observed and utterly reasonable, portray a deeply engaging image of an exquisitely intelligent woman grappling with her past and future.The year referred to in the title would take its toll on Didion in another way, as well: despite showing signs of recovery, Didion's daughter died in August of this year, several weeks after Didion submitted her final manuscript.
Her initial struggle to begin writing about the thoughts and feelings of grief, sorrow and utter isolation aroused by this tragic experience began with four magnificantly dignified short lines:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.
Joan Didion, whose memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking" is quickly becoming a classic portrait of sorrow and grief, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night (11/16/2005). "There's hardly anything I can say about this except thank you," said Didion, praising her publisher for supporting her as she wrote her acclaimed best seller about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo.
The 70-year-old Didion, who had never won the National Book Award, has long been admired by many distinguished authors for her precise, incisive fiction and literary journalism. However, "The Year of Magical Thinking" brought her a substantially larger readership, with booksellers saying that her memoir has been especially in demand from those who have lost a loved one or knew someone who had.
Author Joan Didion giving her acceptance speech after winning the National Book Awards Nonfiction prize for "The Year of Magical Thinking," at the National Book Awards ceremony in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2005.