Last summer I found myself “between gigs”, as they say, and I moved out to the beach for a few weeks. I couldn’t remember when I’d had a chunk of time off like that, so I packed up the clothes, the dog, and the reading that had piled up in the corner into the car and took off. The virtual, digital world I live in professionally can’t really compare with holding a good book in my hands and getting really involved. Like the old days. When dinosaurs roamed the earth.
Sorry…back to the subject of this post…
Every day I planted myself on Main Beach in East Hampton. I had a perfect spot…right by the water, in proximity to the snack bar (and the rest rooms)…on one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. I whipped through magazines that I’d saved, and scoured a few of the obligatory “I-don’t-have-a job-what-is-wrong-with-me-and-how-do-I-fix-this” self help books. And then I read one book that I couldn’t put down; The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, were a literary power couple. She wrote Play It As It Lays (1970) and Political Fictions (2001) and produced a large collection of articles and essays for national publications. He wrote Nothing Lost (2005) and screenplays including A Star Is Born (1976) and Up Close & Personal (1996). They collaborated on The Panic in Needle Park (1971) He died at the dinner table in 2003. They had just returned home from visiting their daughter, Quintana, in intensive care. She had been admitted to the hospital in septic shock. In her grief and, as she has said, as a way of coping, the book came to be.
It was, as you would imagine, a heartbreaking read. But what she couldn’t have known, or imagined, when she wrote the book, and what we do know now is that her daughter passed away after the book was completed. It’s all the more devastatng with that inconceivable loss as a postscript.
To be honest, I had read several pieces by each of them but, beyond the fact that he was Dominick Dunne’s brother, I didn’t know much about their lives. The previous summer I had read a collection of Joan Didion’s essays and was drawn to her literary voice, but I didn’t really feel a connection to the author. Now, as a journey through loss unfolded, the book gave me a clear vision of who these people were and how they lived. And how, even by family fairy tale standards, their lives were uniquely intertwined. I kept the book on my nightstand for the rest of the summer and re-read parts of it over time. It forces us to face how we’ve lived, how we’ll deal with grief when it hits us and what our legacy will be. It is a personal tour de force to be sure, but it is also a window into all of our lives; past, present and future.
This week my friend Rose invited me to see previews of Vanessa Redgrave performing a one woman show based on The Year of Magical Thinking. Of course we now know the final chapter of this incredibly tragic story. In the hands of a less gifted actor it would have been little more than a table read. Ms. Redgrave literally channels Joan Didion on the stage. And at the end she walks off, stage left, and the show closes as a photograph of the Didion-Dunne family taken at their house in Malibu in the seventies fill the backdrop. It leaves you breathless.