The Year of Magical Thinking

ISBN: 140004314X
ISBN 13: 9781400043149
By: Joan Didion

Check Price Now


Biography Biography Memoir Book Club Currently Reading Favorites Memoir Memoirs Non Fiction Nonfiction To Read

About this book

From one of America's iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage -- and a life, in good times and bad -- that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

Reader's Thoughts

Simeon Berry

I also thought this book was tremendously overrated. In the past, I loved Didion because she was a great stylist and a brilliant structuralist. The title essay of The White Album is probably the best-written essay of all time in my book, followed by F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Crack-up" and Charles Bowden's "Torch Song." She has the ability to analyze the personal politics of narrative, and to disclose just how weird and singular her brain is without even a trace of pity or sentimentality. The White Album and Slouching toward Bethlehem are stunning collections.However, as much as it pains me to say it, her powers are not evident in this book. I admire her ferocious impulse to bare her grief and all its fractal iterations, but, like Donald Hall's Without, her sentences aren't up to the task. The Didion of the 60's would have cringed to hear a line like "In an instant, your life can change" come out of her mouth. The strength of her earlier works rests on wry and ironic asides, radical withholding of psychic materials paired with a dazzling ability to move through a scene, and metaphors and sensations that are as finely tuned as any you would find in a novel. But above all, her strange sensibility: becoming obsessed with urban planning, noting the anthropology of poolside drinks in Honolulu, analyzing forensically how Jim Morrison played with matches. Her concerns and how they conditioned her view of the world and her self didn't remotely resemble anyone else's, I loved her darling, odd self.Most of these assets are sadly absent in this memoir. Bald statement, lazy metaphor, and sequence instead of artful arrangement are the rule here, and I hope it is merely due to her grief, and not due to the fall one of the great prose stylists of the past 40 years.


What has stayed with me most from this book is her idea of "the shallowness of sanity." We move through life as though our days aren't numbered; death or tragedy shocks us into another mental state. "Sanity" involves a kind of denial of mortality.


It has been said that divorce is second in psychological trauma only to the loss of a spouse. Personally, I think that’s bullshit; loss of a child must trump all. In any case, Ms. Didion is of the opinion that loss through divorce is mitigated by the ex-spouses corporeal presence on this fine earth; i.e. they’re still alive and well and accessible. Indeed ex-spouses are a present and constant reminder of failure. They are a walking, talking embodiment of the life you thought you would have forever; gone now, replaced with something you never dared imagine. In one chapter she remembers being 22 years old and scoffing at an author’s grief, a lack of understanding that she presently laments and freely recognizes as youth; refreshing introspection the depths of which few are truly capable. As moved as I was by her introspections and admissions, I was a bit surprised by her inaccurate portrayal of grief through divorce. Joan points out that as a widower she found she irrationally blamed herself for her husbands death. The mighty difference between between losing a spouse to death and divorce is that in divorce, others wonder what you did wrong. How did he screw up? Was he violent? A bad father? Disloyal? Unfaithful? Yes, not only do some wonder, but you imagine that everyone does. Every time you lose your temper, say something stupid, experience a lapse in judgement someone might be thinking, “That must be why she left him.” And someone one probably is. This is the first piece I’ve read by the prolific Joan Didion and I will go back for more. In spite of my disagreements with her assumption on in-experienced grief, I truly enjoy caring enough about a piece of literature to re-evaluate my feelings on such a present subject. The raw candor in which she expresses what are undoubtedly the most painful moments of her life was startlingly eloquent. I can’t wait to see what she has done with fiction.


Didion's memoir of the year after her husband's death, and the serious illnesses of her daughter Quintanna, is a gripping read. It moves back and forth through her married life with John, recounting moments of possible foreshadowing of future disaster. She mentions and then documents the unwinding of the mind and spirit after losing a loved one, what happens to protect, to shelter, to then move on. I found much to relate to, possibly to return to at a later time. I've seen negative mention by others of Didion's penchant for name/brand dropping. It really didn't strike me that way while reading. These people and items were facts of her and her husband's lives together and were a part of their identification. Their memories were made at fancier places than I inhabit perhaps, but that does not seem to merit a penalty. In this memoir, individual memories are key, whether they are of a particular perfume or tie, or restaurant or movie director. Each thing or person led to another memory which furthered the journey or explanation of emotion. I don't know if I'm expressing what I mean here, so I think I'll end by saying I found this book very meaningful.


"you sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. the question of self-pity."i picked up this book and read it knowing nothing more than those two short lines. those two lines which become the refrain of the memoir. i think i must have been drawn to it intuitively, i needed to read this book when i did. didion's memoir records her thoughts, feelings and actions during the year following her husband's death and her daughter's near-death hospitalizations (i learned later that after the book was published her daughter did die, a fact which is incorporated into the broadway play adaptation). there is nothing sentimental about this memoir, though it easily could be. instead, the memoir feels like a combination of reading didion's diary and also following her every action. she tells us of every thing she does to try to understand her husband's death and daughter's illness, relying primarily on science for her answers, which she does not find. this is not a self-help book. it did not teach me how to properly grieve. instead, it showed me how one woman, in her own particular circumstances, handled her grieving, which sometimes included not really handling it at all. i needed to read this book when i did and i would recommend it to anyone who has ever experienced a profound loss from which you may not have fully healed. this won't teach you how to heal but it may make you feel less alone and less crazy when life as you know it ends and you begin that insane plunge into the question of self-pity.


The clear light of day tells me that I did not allow John to die, that I did not have that power, but do I believe that? Does he? - Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking. I am stopped at a red light. I glance to my left, to a house on the corner. Two young women are walking up to the front door. The women are dressed rather formally in long black coats. The woman in front is carrying a large floral arrangement of white flowers, lilies mostly. I think to myself that they are probably just returning from a funeral, or are visiting someone recently bereaved. The light changes. I drive away. Some years it seems as if Death is a frequent, if unwelcome, visitor. 2013 was such a year for me. I experienced the deaths of an aunt and a cousin. A close friend lost his sister. In October I attend a conference. A fellow attendee, who at the time seemed to be in perfect health, is dead only three weeks later. December was particularly bad, with the deaths of three elderly acquaintances, including a mother and daughter who die only five days apart. A friend’s email today informs me of the death of her favorite aunt. When is it going to stop I ask? With mortality very much on my mind, it is not surprising that I was so moved by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an unflinching memoir of her own loss following the unexpected death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. The couple were sitting down to supper at their dinner table, when Dunne suddenly collapsed. With nightmarish precision, Didion recounts every detail of that terrible night, culminating with her spouse being declared dead. It is all so terrifying in its ordinariness. As the first year of her widowhood unfolds, Didion finds herself engaging in the “magical thinking” of the book’s title. A famous writer and journalist, Didion finds herself methodically researching why her husband died. For some reason discovering the exact moment of his expiration seems critically important to her. Yet other mundane actions, such as giving away his shoes, or removing the bookmark from the last book he was reading, seem like betrayals against the hope for his miraculous return. The Year of Magical Thinking also examines the married life and writing careers of Didion and Dunne. It was an unusual marriage, comfortable, loving, yet challenging and imperfect. Throughout the book, the couple’s only daughter, Quintana, suffers from a baffling and imprecise brain ailment. Didion must cope with this trauma alone. The Year of Magical Thinking is a profound, almost chillingly honest, examination of grief. Didion resists conventional platitudes and false comforts. When she emerges eventually from her first year of widowhood, it is as a fragile, emotionally-battered survivor. It is not a book about someone “getting over” loss, but rather about confronting it and acknowledging its power.

Kylee Hill

I read this book because it got a lot of attention and it "seemed" like I "should". The whole time I was reading it, I had a uncontrollable reoccurring thought: "This rich bitch. Rich bitch. Rich bitch." It seemed funny to me after a while. It was hard to read the most sincere sections with an open mind while this was happening.There is some rumination in this book about the infinite sense of loss surrounding the death of a vital person. There is also a lot of writing about the anger and resentment of a rich person with a lot of connections and power being totally astonished that untimely death can and did happen to a member of the cultural elite. She seems to have an inkling of self-awareness on this point, but it's never explored. She discusses her experience as a smart, rich woman losing the most important person in her life. She discusses doing nothing for months, barely leaving her house, the worry of friends, and name-drops the elite people who cared or were involved with her during that time. She mentions the obituary appearing in the New York Times.She doesn't mention having any thoughts about the plight of people in similar positions without enough money to stop working, or have professional mental health care, or people without the comfort of having done absolutely everything possible with medical care to prolong their husband's life. She doesn't have to mention any of these things, because that is simply not her life or what happened to her; but I don't have to find it compelling, or an accurate portrayal of loss and death for me or most people. This book is not that.Another reoccurring thought I had while reading: "This may be an important historical document for future generations when wealthy people in first-world areas have found ways to preserve themselves beyond death. This may be an important document of the horrors of the early 21st century for rich people.""This may be an important anthropological document for aliens assessing our society in the wake of The Singularity or their takeover of our planet or just our own slow decline and eventual apocalyptic extinction as a result of global warming/energy crisis/biological warfare or some other fucking shit that could feasibly happen in the next 200 years."


A National Book Award-winner, this book is Didion’s personal memoir of the year following the death of her husband, writer John Dunne. Didion lays out her thought processes and emotions and struggle for normalcy after Dunne passes away suddenly one night at the dinner table from a heart problem. I didn’t find this book nearly as good as the hype would lead me to believe. The NY Times review called it an "indelible portrait of loss and grief." The NY Review of Books said "I can’t imagine dying without this book." For me, it earned none of the preceding words of praise. Books on grief have been done much better, including one referenced multiple times throughout Didion’s book (A Grief Observed by CS Lewis is far superior). I am absolutely convinced that the only reason Didion’s book received such notably positive press was because she and her husband were good friends with all these reviewers and the rest of the literary community, having bonded with these people at dinner parties on the Upper East Side in smoking jackets with martinis and cigars; Didion and Dunne were part of the NYC writing establishment Didion’s prose throughout is tight and reminiscent of early Vonnegut (his self-referencing style, not his humor), but there is an emotional distance in her writing. She quotes numerous studies on grief throughout the book, having spent the months following the tragedy not only grieving but studying grief. But the research studies don’t serve to illuminate her grief; they serve to distance us from her grief. Secondly, Didion lived a very upper-crust NY life, and the way she describes the events she will miss doing (dining at Morton’s with her husband, walking on the Jardin du Ranelagh in Paris with her husband, skipping the Monet exhibit to dine at Conti’s with her husband) further distances me from Didion’s grief. Personally, I don’t find rich people experiencing tragedy as tragic as I would find average people experiencing tragedy. I found this too emotionally detached to recommend it.


For me this book was all about the tension between my hateful, all-consuming envy of Joan Didion for being a rich, brilliant, famous, cool, successful writer with the perfect life, and her obvious point that none of that stuff really matters.I mean, okay, it is way better to stay at the Beverly Wilshire hotel while your only daughter's bruised and swollen brain and dying body are scalpeled apart by the best trauma doctors in the country. This is better than, say, having your daughter get only treatment Medicaid allows and visiting the city hospital when you finish the second shift at your dead-end job, which you have to go to, even though you're insane with grief and terror, because you're one paycheck away from homelessness. As people on here seem fond of noting, yeah, it is way better to have money during such events, and really it's probably nicer to be Joan Didion, rather than somebody else, in most situations, especially ones like these.But it still sucks. A lot.Being Joan Didion and having all her giant heaps of money, brains, and talent, is not currency with much value in the places she travels to in this book, which is part of what makes it such an interesting read, instead of just a well-written and deeply personal description of grief, which, of course, it also is.


I just loved the book because it reminded me of the feeling of grief. Not the part you think remember from when you last experienced it. It is perhaps what you feel after the initial sadness and crying. It is the grief of picking up a phone to call someone before realizing they are gone for good, or the way a loss will seek out a way to occupy your thoughts.I suspected this book would be very depressing, but it wasn't for me. It brought back the crazy rationalizations you make with yourself after a loved one dies..that somehow you can help overturn what has happened.I suspect that as a great writer who can edit and mold a story to her will, Joan Didion felt more betrayed than most because she could not change the outcome of this story, or fully control her own response to it. But she does illustrate what a very intelligent, articulate person would do when someone she loves dies. She tries to control what she can, she attempts to wish them back to life, live through all the "what ifs" that could have been, to become a detective of the last minutes. I dream that the people I love who have died still contact me whenever I have a vivid dream about them. That's my magical thinking.This is a brilliant example of someone illustrating a feeling common to most of us humans... rich or poor.... grief, in an unflinching way.


I'd heard good things from this book, from an acclaimed author I had never even heard of who bears a small resemblance to Joni Mitchell and Sissy Spacek. This is all, of course, inconsequential.I picked this book up when I was running away from my then boyfriend and on a midnight plane to Dublin.It wasn't until three weeks later, whilst in London, that I started it. I find this all very important because it gives me a feel for what is written in the book that sort of reflected what was going on in my life at the time. I had not lost a husband but there were certainly changes going on in my life. This is an important aspect to consider, that we can feel grief in other ways besides death, that loneliness is there at any possible time and that our life shapes and moves forward in various ways.The entire book is a meditation on death, dying, relationships, family and change. One night, Joan and her husband are about to sit down to dinner. Their daughter is very ill in hospital. When very suddenly, Joan's husband has a fatal heart attack.The rest of a book is a musing on their relationship together, what it feels like to be a widow and have a life without a life-long companion. What death means, especially sudden death. There are pieces on travelling, famil, love, motherhood. There are even fragments about what it means to be a writer, how you cope with grief as a writer, what do you do when the emotional level is so high you cannot even bring yourself to write.It is a wonderful slim volume written in a direct and crisp prose that I recommend highly to read alone. I don't see it as a holiday book to read beside the beach, or something to read whilst anyone is talking. Each word and feeling must be savoured. Read it in the middle of the night or the early morning, with the window open to hear the slow hum of the night-time, with a good strong mug of coffee whilst you're curled up on the sofa or in bed.It's the kind of book that will leave you feeling beaten up afterwards, amidst the direct formation of words there are many great ideas and cutting emotions, just make sure you have the emotional energy for it.


C.S. Lewis (apparently among many others) said, “We read to know we are not alone.”Well, this is the foundation on which I am rebuilding myself piece by piece.I read Sylvia Plath and knew that I was not alone, trapped in my own mind, not knowing if an escape existed. I knew that I was not the only one afflicted by the panic bird on my heart and my typewriter, hovering over me and threatening to take flight with my sanity and will to live, love, and create.I read Laurie Notaro, Jen Lancaster, and Jenny Lawson to know that I am certainly not the only neurotic, sarcastic, sometimes irrational and stubborn woman who write to tell their stories, because there is a joy in sharing.I read Joan Didion to reassure myself that in tragedy, even in the seemingly infinite time following a catastrophic loss, that I am not the only one with this guilt of self-pity:“People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for the signs of it….Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation…Self-pity remains both the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects…the grieving have urgent reasons, even an urgent need, to feel sorry for themselves…Only the survivors of a death are truly left alone…we are repeatedly left, in other words, with no further focus than ourselves, a source from which self-pity naturally flows.”Didion also reminded me that feeling irrational and crazy is not a cognitive defect:“We might expect if the death is sudden to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to literally be crazy…In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.”…The worst days will be the earliest days…We wonder about failure to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death…(and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaningless itself.”She taught me that I am not inept or broken in my new-found antisocial behavior. My often erratic and awkward aversion to conversations with even those I am closest to:“I notice that I have lost the skills for ordinary social encounters, however undeveloped those skills may have been…I found conversations with others difficult.”And to wrap up my parade of Didion quotes, she made me realize that the loss extends far greater than the actual tangible loss of a person or relationship:“…when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer.”I have referred to a TheSpohrsAreMultiplying post (no obligation to read), in which I understood more than the words. I understood more than the meaning. I felt them. I read the words, but I experienced the story.It is more than just reading a well composed paragraph that conveys concepts clearly. It is more than reading about a day or a month or a life and thinking, “I don’t JUST understand this. I don’t JUST ‘get’ the meaning of this. I don’t JUST feel that something has been explained to me and I have gained new knowledge.I feel it. I read some things and I KNOW. I read the words and I think, “I know this is true. I know this feeling. I know it well. I have lived this. I have cried in this way or hurt in this way and this is comforting. I am connected to you, stranger, we are joined in some way.”It is books and literature that continues to be my salvation through this difficult time. This is my solace. These connections through words. This is my comfort and I am clinging to it desperately.I continue to read to know that I am not alone.Thank you Ms. Didion.

noisy penguin

I hated this book. It is the reason I instituted my "100 pages" policy (if it's not promising 100 pages in, I will no longer waste my time on it). So within the 100 pages I did read, all I got from Didion was that she and her husband used to live a fabulous life and they know a lot of famous people. She spoke of the '60s as a time when "everyone" was flying from LA to San Francisco for dinner. Um, no, actually, "everyone" wasn't doing that then and they're not doing it now. Instead of saying "our friend so and so gave the eulogy at my husband's funeral," she said, "The great essayist David Halberstam." What does that add to the story? I found only brief spots of actual grief for Didion's husband and daughter, but they weren't enough to overpower my loathing for the author and her self-importance.


"A memoir...says: This is what my memory insists on, this is what my memory will not let go, these points of memory make me who I am, and all that others find incomprehensible about me is explained by what's in here." -Andrea Dworkin (not from or related to The Year of Magical Thinking)I love memoirs because they're like roadmaps to being a human. They tell you what it feels like to have a certain experience. They don't claim to be the authority on that experience, but they are bold and certain in their truth and honesty: this is what it was like for me. This is how I felt. And when they're done well, they convince: it will be like this for you, too, when it happens, or: I know you know what I'm talking about because you felt it, and maybe you couldn't put it into words, so here they are, finally.I've never lost someone very close to me, so reading The Year of Magical Thinking was more like the former for me. It's the story of the year following the sudden death of Joan Didion's husband. She describes, simply and beautifully, her grief. There's not much else I can say about it. It's not sappy or overly sentimental; it's a plain, true story about surviving someone you love and trying to come to grips with the fact that your life will forever be divided into "before" and "after," or maybe that your old life ended at the same time that theirs did and will never come back. The book mirrors Didion's grief process in that it interweaves stories of her relationship with her husband ("before") to how her life changed after he died ("after"). Highly recommended.


This wasn't exactly what I expected. I knew from an interview with Didion on Fresh Air that the book was written in the year that followed the death of her husband - A year she spent mostly in hospitals at her adult daughter's bedside. The daughter, Quintana, suffered various illnesses and injuries that year, all of them serious & potentially fatal. The medical odyssey had begun just five days before her husband's sudden death from a heart attack. He died, in fact, in the couple's living room having just returned for the night from their daughter's hospital room.What I expected was a memoir of the piled-upon trajedies. I guess I did get that, just not how I'd imagined. I expected emotion and poignant anecdotes that would be intimate but also somehow metaphorical on the grand scale (she is a famous fiction writer after all, if anyone could deliver this it would be her). Turns out, Didion is not a particularly emotive person. She is however a true believer that knowledge is power [reminding me of one of my favorite quotes] and she attacks both her grief and her daughter's poor health as a researcher and investigator. She quickly abandons the grief books of self-help ilk for actual, scientific and psychological studies and treatises. For medical manuals and calling in favors from medical professionals with whom she has one connection or another. Then she studies her self in a remarkably objective manner (perhaps aided by shock?) armed with this new knowledge. I've read some of the other reviews of this book on goodreads and note that those that are particularly critical don't like the coldness with which Didion approaches the book but I took that as self-preservation. She had to keep moving or she might, literally, shrivel up and die. To explore her illogical behaviors (like keeping her husbands shoes even after giving up the rest of his clothes) and her increasingly tenuous grasp on the present (much of the book is expository, with Didion letting present details lead her back to various experiences that she analyzes and re-analyzes with the detriment of hindsight) is her way of keeping afloat. It's those very qualities of her grief, human and irrational, that made Didion, to me, a sympathetic author. The 'magical' thinking in the title refers to her insistence throughout the year, though private and mostly subconscious, that if she could just analyze things correctly or do everything in a particular, precise way her husband would come back and rejoin their life. That's a desperation a lot of us can relate to - even if we muddled through it in ways very different from Didion's. I enjoyed the reminiscing - a peek into the lives of two prominent U.S. authors of the last half century and those with whom they held court. I found Didion's research fascinating and more so the way she applied it to her own circumstance and then considered the data. The book made me think about my own choices and how I might reconsider them in the future, when things are different and the faux security of youth are gone.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *