A disclaimer: I did not manage to finish this book, even though it’s not very long. I love Joan Didion’s journalistic writing, as well as the two other memoirs of hers that I have read (The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights), but I just could not get on with Where I Was From.
It is a memoir, about Didion, but mostly it is about California. The book begins with some of Didion’s family history, going back to her ancestors who migrated from the east of the US over to California. I liked this part. But quickly the book becomes more and more about California, and less and less about Didion. I found myself just switching off during chapters dedicated to this landowner or that one, none of whom have any real connection to Didion apart from maybe living in the same town as one of her ancestors.
The book starts to get rather list-like as she moves through time, and I just could not engage with the material. Didion’s rather flat style of writing works perfectly when she’s writing about something interesting, so that the subject matter is the focus and you get swept along with what she is telling you. But here her style means that I was too aware of how uninterested I was in what she was actually talking about. Didion obviously did copious amounts of research as the book is very detailed, but a lot of the time I felt like I didn’t need that amount of detail. I found myself skimming over whole paragraphs.
I honestly feel bad that I didn’t get on with this book, given that I am a fan of Didion’s other writing. I think it was a combination of the book not being what I expected (I thought it was going to be a more straightforward memoir, with a bit of Californian history thrown in), my not being engaged with such niche American history, not being American, and my having a busy few weeks where I just wanted a super engaging and easy book to read. Where I Was From was just not the right book for me at the moment. Perhaps I’ll try and give it a go another time, but for now, I’m looking forward to reading more of Didion’s other work that I know I’ll get on with better.
Originally published in 2003 by Knopf. I read the 2004 Harper Perennial paperback (pictured above).