Magical Thinking: Our 10 Favorite Memoirs of Loss


Yesterday saw the release of Joan Didion’s newest memoir, Blue Nights . Didion is the master of the memoir, but more specifically, she is the master of the genre of the memoir of loss, of teaching us something through her exquisitely rendered grief, of sharing her family and heart. The book got us to thinking about other wonderful examples of memoirs in this genre, which just seems to get more and more popular, despite its inherent sadness, so we’ve compiled a list of a few of our favorites. Click through to see our list of our ten favorite memoirs about loss, and let us know your own favorites in the comments.

Blue Nights , Joan Didion

The blue nights, according to Didion in this heartbreaking memoir of the life and death of her daughter Quintana Roo, are those long evenings of summer when the sky holds on to its deep color for what seems impossibly long. As she writes, “During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called ‘Blue Nights’ because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”

The Year of Magical Thinking , Joan Didion

Yes, of course there is another Didion on this list, and immediately — and how could there not be? This unbearably beautiful memoir is a portrait of Didion’s marriage to John Gregory Dunne, and of his sudden death, an event that sent her into a state of what she terms “magical thinking.” She writes, “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” From the secret message of her husband’s name inlaid on the cover to its elegant rendering of time and insights about life and love, this memoir is incredibly touching, and yes: cool, crazy, and magical.

Love is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time , Rob Sheffield

Despite the fact that it’s a somewhat cheesy conceit, we can’t help but admit that we loved this memoir in mixtapes, each chapter begun with a list of songs to get you in the mood. When Sheffield’s wife collapsed in the kitchen, dying instantly of a pulmonary embolism, he was forced to change the way he thought about life, music, and everything.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , Dave Eggers

In truth, Dave Eggers’ post-modern memoir is less a true memoir of grief (though there is much grief to be had) and more about learning to be both parent and sibling to his brother Toph after they lose both parents to cancer in the space of five weeks. As such, however, it is a beautiful portrait of sacrifice, love, and the importance of family in the face of everything.

The Pure Lover , David Plante

Plante’s incredibly intimate memoir of grief is really more like a collection of disjointed, jewel-like memories of his partner Nikos Stangos and their forty-year life together. The writing even drifts into Nikos’ point of view from time to time, as if to proclaim the irrelevance of separating the one from the other.

A Grief Observed , C.S. Lewis

In this incredibly personal, journal-like reflection on life after the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis writes of the ability of grief to shake the very foundation of his thinking. “Your bid — for God or no God, for a good God or the Cosmic Sadist, for eternal life or nonentity — will not be serious if nothing much is staked on it,” he writes. “And you will never discover how serious it was until the stakes are raised horribly high. Nothing will shake a man — or at any rate a man like me — out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

Giving Up the Ghost , Hilary Mantel

This is a memoir of loss in a different way than most of the others on this list. Mantel spent her 20s suffering from endometriosis — and suffering from the doctors who misdiagnosed her — before, at 27, undergoing an operation to remove her uterus. The weight she gained from the ensuing drugs caused strangers to think she was pregnant, which now she would never be. It is a memoir of illness, of losing something you didn’t know you had, and of living on, all rendered in Mantel’s exquisitely sharp prose.

The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon , Donald Hall

What could be more heartbreakingly beautiful than the life and separation of two poets? Elegant and artful, Hall’s memoir of the life and death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, switches from the scenes of her leukemia to the memories of their time together and back again, from the bad days to the good days, but it is his glowing prose that makes this book special.

Nothing Was the Same , Kay Redfield Jamison

Jamison, who is the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders and Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, knows something about madness. In this beautiful love story of a memoir, Jamison tells of her husband’s death from cancer, and her own battle to separate grief from true mental breakdown in the face of it.

The Long Goodbye , Meghan O’Rourke

In The Long Goodbye, O’Rourke, a poet and critic, considers death in the modern age — the difference between our culture’s universality of grief and its intensely private manifestations, the preparation, the mourning and the inconvenience, the desperate need to be reminded of love. Most satisfying of all, as a reader, O’Rourke’s sweet, relatable prose is like a friend baring her soul, saying the very things you think yourself. She writes, “A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.”