Friday night, Mike and I went out. First, we went to Ryan’s for dinner. Then we went to the theater and saw Serenity again. After the movie, we stopped into Borders where I could not resist buying Joan Didion’s new book (nominated for a National Book Award, btw). I dare you to pick this book up, read the first couple of pages, and not be compelled to finish it.
By the time we got home Friday, it was late, so I didn’t pick the book up until Saturday evening. And then I did nothing else until I was finished. I could not put this book down. It’s the sort of book you want to read and don’t want to read at the same time.
From the book jacket: “Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later–the night before New Year’s Eve–the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over.”
The first words of the book are this: “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.”
What follows is an attempt to understand the grieving process and to come to terms with the fact that her husband, the man through whose eyes she’d seen herself for forty years, was gone. Her daughter lies in a hospital in critical condition and her husband is dead in an instant. Though Quintana pulls through, she winds up in LA two months later having emergency brain surgery. She pulls through that as well. Unfortunately, what makes this book that much more poignant is the knowledge that ultimately Quintana did not survive. She died in August of this year, not quite two years after her father. Joan Didion had already finished the book by then and decided not to change it. In an interview with Terry Gross, Didion talks about the fact that she hasn’t even begun to deal with her daughter’s death yet.
Whether or not you’ve had to deal with the grief of a loved one’s passing, this book is worth reading. It is like, in some respects, watching a train wreck and being unable to turn away even though you want to. In other respects, it’s like sharing in the community of humanity. This is grief. This is loss. This is what it feels like for one person. This is what it might feel like for me.
Ms. Didion is very deservedly nominated for a National Book Award for this work. The prose is transparent, the writing seemingly effortless. Nothing calls attention to itself, nothing says, “Look at me, I’m style!” And yet, there is voice here. The voice makes you ache and yet isolates itself from you. You want to reach out and pat the author’s shoulder, but you also feel you wouldn’t dare to intrude on her grief. Amazing book. Read it.