Recommended Read For Med Students (And Everyone Else): The Year of Magical Thinking

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • For those of you who are familiar with Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking may seem like a departure from our previous MST Recommended Reads, largely because Didion does not have an MD. That being said, those familiar with this book should easily understand why it can be important for anyone working in a hospital setting to read. It is, after all, a memoir about death.

    What’s it about?

    In a few words, it’s about Didion experiencing the passing of her late husband John Dunne in 2003. The highly stylized narrative follows Didion through the next year of her life as she also watches her daughter suffer from numerous medical issues, including bleeding in her brain. Didion’s memories play and replay as she tries to come to terms with her husband’s death, her daughter’s suffering, and what they mean for her.

    Why does it have that weird title?

    It’s taken from Didion’s desire to believe her husband will come back, despite logically understanding that he has died. There’s a heartbreaking moment, for example, when she begins to pack up his clothes to give to Goodwill: “I was not yet prepared to address the suits and shirts and jackets but I thought I could handle what remained of the shoes, a start. I stopped at the door to the room. I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need those shoes if he was to return.”

    Why is this relevant to medicine?

    It goes without saying that the decision to become a doctor is inseparably paired with a decision to have death be a part of your daily life. To put it bluntly, I don’t know how y’all handle it. It’s remarkable for me to imagine all of the “young people” who go from undergrad to med school to residency, and at the tender age of 26 are already navigating life-and-death decisions.

    For just that reason, this book holds two very important truths never before told so beautifully. One: death is hard. It’s hard to understand; it’s hard — maybe impossible — to rationalize; it’s hard to witness; and it’s especially hard if you feel in some way involved. And two: everyone reacts in different and strange ways to death. As Didion poetically demonstrates, it’s a space seldom maneuvered with rationality.

    So, should I read it?

    To borrow from an earlier MST Recommended Reads: You should read it if you, a loved one, or a patient of yours may one day get old, deteriorate, and/or die.

    Will I like it?

    I found it to be a truly life-changing read. That being said, the book is highly stylized. If your preference is for completely linear plots, you may find it challenging to get through. My experience has shown that people either love or hate this book.

    Any last thoughts?

    Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the romance. My favorite part is the metaphor Didion uses to describe her relationship with Dunne. She recounts: “We walked every morning. We did not always walk together because we liked different routes but we would keep the other’s route in mind and intersect before we left the park.” I can’t think of anything more romantic: two people on separate life journeys, always able to keep the other in mind.