Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Too much of a good thing

Last week, I posted about relatability, specifically how important it was to be able to relate to a character to get into the story. This week, I'm posting about how a story can have too much relatability, at least for me.

My book group (Love you, BDBC!) decided to read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Actually, they've been trying to read this for a while and I keep talking them out of it. They finally scheduled it for this month.

TYMT is a memoir about Didion's life the year after her husband died. My own husband died in 1999 of a brain tumor. To say that the year of his illness and his eventual death was a watershed event in my life doesn't begin to sum up how losing him changed me. I will never be the same person I was before the day that he had that first seizure and we ended up in the emergency room hearing words like occipital lobe and gliosarcoma.

It's been more than ten years for me. While I've reconciled myself to the idea that I will never be able to put all of it behind me or truly "get over" it, I have gone on. Didion's book sucked me right back to that year after Fred died. I have read other books with widows in them and even cried at their loss, none of them has hit me like this book. At 35 pages in, I found myself starting to hyperventilate. At 82 pages in, I woke up in the morning with the pit in my stomach and the rock in my chest that I had thought would be my permanent state of being in the two years after Fred's death.

I stopped reading it. I can't go back there. Part of me would love to reread some sections to see how she did what she did, but I don't think I have the emotional fortitude. In one of those bizarre twists, I am not the only widow in my book group. There are three of us. I e-mailed on of the other women and she's not having the same experience with the book I am. She finds the parallels between Didion's experience and her own comforting for the same reasons I find them devastating.

So how much is too much? Have you ever read a book that affected you so strongly that you had to stop reading it?


8 comments:

Kristen Painter said...

I'm sorry you had such a tough time with the book. I've never had that experience, but I think putting it down was the right thing to do. Why put yourself back in that place unnecessarily?

Eileen said...

Thanks, Kristen. I wonder if maybe it would help work things out a little more if I was willing to do it. Part of me feels like I should be more over it after ten years. Part of me feels like I'll never get over it no matter what.

Anyway you slice it, I wasn't ready to deal with it now.

Kelly Boyce said...

That's a great post and really makes you think. What you went through was devastating and no wonder you had the reaction you did to the book. I found myself reading a book over the summer that mirrored my own current situation at the time and it really made me think about what I was doing and how other people in the situation might be feeling and thinking. It was both a comfort and an bit of an eye opener for me.

Molly O'Keefe said...

oh wow - Eileen. I'm so glad you put the book down. Such a physical reaction to a book is yes, too much of a good thing.

I believe in art as catharsis and that there's not much that's stronger than shared experience - but at some point you have to realize what is good for you and what isn't.

I love Didon's book and I can appreciate your reaction, and the reactions of your friends who have continued to read it. It's a testament to her genius.

Eileen said...

You're so right, Molly. It's not like I haven't read books or seen movies where the death of a husband was a major theme/plot point. I've even been deeply affected by them, but never like this. This scared me.

Kelly, I think that's how my other friends are reading the book. They're able to step back enough to see the different sides to the situation and come out of it with something new.

Maureen McGowan said...

I ditto Kristen's comment. I've had books affect me personally, but never quite to that point. But you were right to put it down.

I suppose I've had a couple of books and movies that made me sob for hours and have stayed with me, but never in such a personal way.

Eileen said...

I remember crying for several hours after the movie Ordinary People and there are parts of Time Traveler's Wife that I still can't talk about without choking up.

This book, however, was a completely visceral response all its own.

Sinead M said...

Wow! With a reaction like that, it makes me think Didion should be incredibly proud.
That said, you definitely should not be reading it.
Going through a tragedy like that once is enough.

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