The Year of Magical Thinking

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

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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


Didion breaks a cardinal rule of story-writing, which is to have something happen. The only events that occur in this book are the instantaneous cardiac arrest of her husband and an illness that puts her daughter on life support. Even these, due to Didion's weaving, do not feel like ordinary events in a plotline. She tells pieces of the story over and over again through the various angles of memory, as though her grief had been journalled and later assembled as a mosaic instead of in chronological order.The value of the book is as a series of personal and occasionally psycho-academic (but well-integrated) reflections on grief."The Year of Magical Thinking" refers to her denial that her husband is gone for good. Although she does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, nevertheless, she says, she feels certain her husband will come back. In the second half of the book, there is an interesting exploration of the Greek play Alcestis, in which a king begs his family to die in his place. Only his wife volunteers to die, and when Charon comes to ferry her away, the king is racked with guilt. The queen eventually returns from the dead. Didion asks: "If the dead were truly to come back, what would they come back knowing? Could we face them, we who allowed them to die?" There is a meditation on the idea of luck: whether, if one has been lucky in the past, it is appropriate to consider oneself unlucky later on when something bad happens, and whether one should expect that the playing field will eventually be leveled."All year," Didion writes, "I had been keeping time by last year's calendar. What were we doing on this day last year?" She is shocked when she crosses the one-year mark, and realizes she has over a year's worth of memories that do not include her husband. (I would add that this behavior of "keeping time by last year's calendar" is not unique to the death of a loved one; it can happen with any life event that carries a sense of loss, such as a breakup.) Didion's moving conclusion reflects on the tsunami in 2004 that would have eradicated the islands where she once vacationed with her husband. "I know why we try to keep the dead alive. We try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves, there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead...Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water."


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.


My sympathy for this really, truly awful situation dwindled because I just could not understand what the fuck was going on with her lifestyle. I had to re-read and re-read many passages because "plane" would be used interchangeably with "private jet," so I couldn't understand how they just let her roll from one place to another no charge, etc.Let me start this over.I have loved Joan Didion's writing in the past. Without including herself in the equation, her stories have always been coherent and lovely. This perhaps was too personal? It's so choppy and uneven. Point A to point B just aren't reached with any clarity. And I hate the idea that everything who I've tried to talk about this book with thinks I'm the Grinch because I'm hung up on narrative when people have DIED in this non-fiction. It's not her situation I'm criticizing. It's just structure. I think Didion is blind to the fact that we, her readers, don't know who the hell she is name dropping at all times. Also, I really think she wrote this to please herself, which puts we readers on a boat in the middle of nada ocean. It's a collection of quotes she likes and memories only she can appreciate. Heartless review out.


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.


Hated it, hated it, hated it- but kept reading with the hope that all my pain and suffering would somehow be worth it in the end. It wasn't. The same self-pitying, whiney, depressing, self-important sentiments are basically repeated over and over again only with different words. Joan Didion can obviously write well, but she should have left this cathartic piece in her closet. And I'm not averse to reading novels that deal with grief. This one was just way too self-indulgent and redundant for me. And Didion's pervasive name-dropping and repeated descriptions of her wealth and fame just made me hate the book even more.


I am not the type of person that cries at funerals. I find crying at a funeral as constructive as trying to stop a raging river with a few paper towels and a bag of sand, nothing is achieved. Find me not callous, for I am sensitive to the recently departed and their family. It's just that...I don't know...I know there is nothing that can be done to bring back that person. Rereading the above really makes me sound like an ass so let me try it another way: death is something we all have to accept; my acceptance of death comes more easily than it does for others. Take Didion for example. Here we have a very educated woman who foggily ambles through the year following her husband's (John Gregory Dunne) death. John died of a severe infarction. He had a long history of heart issues. He knew this was the way he was going to die. But even with all this evidence, his personal testimony, Didion finds the death of her husband shocking, as if she were blindsided. (I’ll grant that no one wants to be in mid-conversation with someone when they die.) Now stop cursing me, let me continue. John’s death in-and-of-itself does not make this story compelling. Quintana, John and Didion’s daughter, and her sickness is what makes this story compelling. You see, we are all going to die. Husbands will have to bury wives, and wives will have to bury husbands. That’s life. But none of us ever want to experience having to bury a child. And the way that Didion structures her story allows her to think she is grieving for her husband, when, in reality, she is telling their story to mask the fact that she is scared shitless about losing her daughter. You see, Didion does a great job of recounting the great love her and John shared for almost forty years. But some of the details that she gives the reader really only show that we (the readers) will never know what it was like to live a life with John. We’ll never know what it feels like to get a free ticket on the Concorde; we’ll never know what it’s like to get free tickets from the NBA commissioner; basically, we’ll never know what it was like to live a life of affluence and prestige. But, even without ever knowing this aspect of her life, we will all more than likely at some point fear for our child, which is the bridge that connects us to Didion. During the chaotic (brilliant narration, stylistic technique) timelines and temporal displacements via vortexes, Didion is unable to mask the fear she has of losing her only child. Unfortunately, Didion also realizes that this year of magical thinking is less about her husband and more about her daughter and closes the door for us readers over and over again just as we are about to get a real true glimpse into Didion’s grief. You see, Didion was able to deal with her husband’s death; what she was unable to deal with was the possibility of losing her child. But even with the absence of these concrete feelings, and the insertion of insights from countless psychiatrists and research papers about grief, the story works. Didion understands that she might be able to hide from the reader, allow for what information is passed-along to us, as long as she is able to stay one step in front of her feelings. Fortunately for us, grief and confusion and frustration and anger and misery know no boundaries. What is never said on the written page is said with infinite detail in the between spaces of events and conversations within the story. The year of which Didion chronicles is truly heart-wrenching; I’m pretty sure I would not be able to cope as well as she did. But it is also full of promise, redemptions, and hope. This is a beautiful and tragic story, one that is sure to become a classic concerning death and the grieving process.HIGHLY RECOMMENDED


This is one amazing book, and it turned me into a Joan Didion fan forever. Not a "happy" book at all, mind you -- it is a personal story about the sudden death of her husband and true partner and the aftermath. I could totally relate to the meaning behind the phrase "Magical Thinking" after the death of several very dear to me. You feel like if you could just reach around a corner, or a wrinkle in time, they would be right there. Joan Didion's voice must be a low and resonant whisper. She writes beautifully and factually, and yet there is a observant, detached quality. The book hit me hard, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has lost a loved one.


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.


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.


This is my first attempt to read anything written by Joan Didion. I picked up The Year of Magical thinking at a used book sale, after hearing her name thrown around in literary circles and not knowing anything about her. At this moment I'm only on page 76 and I don't know if I'll bother trying to make it to page 77 as the pretension is becoming unbearable.The book is a series of essays she wrote after the death of her husband to whom she was married for 40 years. Little nuggets of Didion's poetic insight on grief gave me the momentum to keep going even as her words threw up some stumbling blocks of resentment as I couldn't help but compare her grief over the loss of her husband to my own grief over the loss of my sister. Didion had her husband for 40 years! I only had my sister for 32. What I would give for 8 more! (I realize this line of thinking would be equally offensive to someone who only had their loved one for 26 years, 18 years, 7 years, 7 months, or seven hours. Only eternity with our loved ones can sate us).Not only that, but how damn lucky is this woman that she loved the man she was married to so intensely and so thoroughly for four decades! I don't even dream of such a love. The chances of that kind of relationship coming into being in anyone's life are so slim as to make imagining it a ridiculous torture devise.These things I could get over, but when you throw in all her remembrances of trips to Cambridge, Malibu, Indonesia, Beverly Hills, St. Bart's, Palos Verdes and all the soufflés, creme caramels, daubes and albóndigas her husband ate at these places it gets to be too damn much. I don't even know what a daube or an albóndiga is and Didion repulses me to such an extent that I don't have any interest in finding out, either.


An undeniable, biographically verified tragedy will carry a book a long way. But I felt her approach to sorrow to be one of control, to be an instance of a particularly American kind problem-solving, rather than of serious solitary reflection and attempted acceptance. I also found the cloistered, rarefied, routinized luxury of her life and world to be rather spoiled, despite its grave horrors. Though I enjoyed the stark realism, I might have enjoyed a less iron face than the one with which she, by necessity, turned to the events of her life. I felt she might have sat with the tragedy longer before writing it and that this would have allowed it more life, and would have given her the distance necessary to no longer need to so control the death. The book was very smart, often insightful, always heartbreaking, and undeniably real--this was its power.


This is the second book my girlfriend has recommended to me about people whose spouses die. So...There's a clinical feel about this book. Not accidentally: Didion goes out of her way to cite research on the effects of grief. She analyzes it. You can feel her standing back from it, trying desperately to understand it. It lacks the emotional punch of (the other depressing-ass book my girlfriend convinced me to read) About Alice, and it does that on purpose. This is how Joan Didion works, I guess: she tries to dig in and understand. She's "a cool customer," as a hospital worker describes her at the moment of her husband's death. "What," she wonders, "would an uncool customer be allowed to do?"I told Jo that I connected with About Alice more, emotionally; this seemed more like a description. Someone said here on Goodreads that it was nice to hear a story about a real passionate love affair, and I was surprised; that's not the story I read. It may have been passionate, but that's not in this book. There's not one mention of a passionate moment. Moments of support, absolutely, and of friendship, but never passion. At times I felt like the tragedy here wasn't the loss of love, but the loss of habit.But habit is life, and what Didion is trying to describe is the loss of her life as she knew it. Jo said it nicely: About Alice is about love, she said; Year of Magical Thinking is about loss. I call I die first so I don't have to go through this. It sounds like a bummer.


"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.


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.


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.

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