The Year of Magical Thinking - book cover
Death & Grief
  • Publisher : Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; Reprint edition
  • Published : 13 Feb 2007
  • Pages : 227
  • ISBN-10 : 1400078431
  • ISBN-13 : 9781400078431
  • Language : English

The Year of Magical Thinking

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From one of America's iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion that 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.

Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later-the night before New Year's Eve-the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma.

This powerful book is Didion' s attempt to make sense of the "weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness ... about marriage and children and memory ... about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.

Editorial Reviews

"Thrilling . . . a living, sharp, and memorable book. . . . An exact, candid, and penetrating account of personal terror and bereavement . . . sometimes quite funny because it dares to tell the truth."
-Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review

"Stunning candor and piercing details. . . . An indelible portrait of loss and grief."
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"I can't think of a book we need more than hers. . . . I can't imagine dying without this book."
-John Leonard, New York Review of Books

"Achingly beautiful. . . . We have come to admire and love Didion for her preternatural poise, unrivaled eye for absurdity, and Orwellian distaste for cant. It is thus a difficult, moving, and extraordinarily poignant experience to watch her direct such scrutiny inward."
-Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Los Angeles Times

"An act of consummate literary bravery, a writer known for her clarity allowing us to watch her mind as it becomes clouded with grief. . . . It also skips backward in time [to] call up a shimmering portrait of her unique marriage. . . . To make her grief real, Didion shows us what she has lost."
-Lev Grossman, Time

Readers Top Reviews

I haven't read much Joan Didion so have no markers to steer by, but this book was rubbish and fabulous, repetitive and singular, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, all the way through. The single word I think I'd use to describe it is 'Lonesome'. Because it is. I admired her fortitude as well as weakness, her grief as well as her (few) joys, and I can only think it was written as both a cathartic and a learning experience. Despite these weasel words, read it anyway.
Rose Lois Presley
Granted, it’s not your conventional love story, ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ is the story of a marriage that ends abruptly, suddenly. Didion writes from the realist perspective, practical, abstract, cold almost. Her husband of 40 years, mid-scotch, dies at the dinner table in their apartment of a heart attack. “She’s a pretty cool customer” notes a hospital observer. Loss is a fearful subject, it’s a frontier nobody ever expects to cross and it’s a subject that nobody ever really talks about. People change the subject, if you lose your partner nobody asks how you cope with the empty side of the bed and what happens at the end of the day when all you want to do is curl up in the conversation of your partner, your best friend. Didion explores the magical thinking that takes over- signs, meanings, messages, whether her husband knew intuitively what would happen as she traces and traverses backwards and forwards across the landscape of their relationship and marriage, his death.
wombataarnald amunds
The Year of Magical Thinking documents the process of grieving that Didion went through in the year after her husband's death, and has been widely acclaimed for its detached, stylised writing. A case of the emperor's new clothes? To my mind her voice is cold, dishonest and vague: there is no heart to this book. Given the subject matter, I find this particularly chilling. She intellectualises her grief for her husband to the extent of removing all emotion. There is no sense of who her husband was – just an awful lot about Didion herself, a clinical recitation of all the literature on grief she’s read, and endless throwaway remarks about her privileged status in Malibu and New York. Then there's the subplot of The Year of Magical Thinking, which is a devastating one: her daughter, Quintana, is gravely ill in hospital while Didion herself is trying to come to terms with her husband's death (Quintana will in fact die the following summer, after Didion had drafted her manuscript but before the book was published). But not once does Didion express any love or warmth for her sickening daughter. Maybe this is why I struggled with this book and am judging her so harshly. In a recent documentary on Netflix (The Centre Will Not Hold), the closest Didion can come to saying something even remotely affectionate about her daughter is "her humour worked for me". Other than that, it's all about Didion. One review of Blue Nights, the book she wrote after The Year of Magical Thinking, about her daughter's death, puts it this way: "What is perhaps most odd about this work is how little we ultimately learn about Quintana, who remains in the background and sometimes fades entirely from view." It’s hard to feel any empathy for someone so resolutely focused on herself amid such sadness and tragedy.
Joseph Sciuto
Joan Didion's "The Year Of Magical Thinking" is a brutally honest recounting of the grief Mrs. Didion felt after losing her husband, John Gregory Dunne, after forty years of marriage. As someone who believes that "honesty" is the one essential quality every piece of great writing has in common, well then Mrs. Didion has hit the ball out of the park. Her writing is not only honest, but enthralling, and compelling. Yet, this is not the type of book I would recommend to everyone. For people dealing with grief or have experienced great grief one can easily relate and find a certain amount of comfort in the author's experiences, yet if one is in a happy mood or chronically depressed I would not recommend this book. It is a heart wrenching story and sometimes it is better not to disturb one's peace of mind.
I read this book after my healthy 67-years-old mother died unexpectedly from a massive brain bleed. She was visiting me, we were talking and sitting on my couch, and she just fell over. It still feels like a nightmare, and it's been been almost three months. Anyway, there are a lot of books out there to help with grief. You can find all kinds of self-help types of books on this topic, some written for adult children, some for surviving spouses. Mostly I didn't find them very helpful---neither did my dad. In addition to grief counseling, I would recommend this book highly to anyone dealing with a sudden death of a loved one. Didion's memoir helped me so much---her descriptions of her emotional trauma, and how she lived in the aftermath were spot-on and very similar to my own experience. I am usually very focused, detail-oriented; my memory is sharp. But since my mom died, I've been forgetful, unfocused, unmotivated. I felt like I was losing my mind. And I just kept thinking that if I could make it through the funeral, that would be the worst part. As Didion explains, that is NOT the worst part, or the hardest part---the worst and hardest things come later. Didion writes a lot about her own similar problems when grieving, and it was so good to know that it's not just me, and that it will get better. I bought a copy for my dad, too, and he devoured it and also found it very helpful---in fact he's mentioned several times how valuable this book has been to him. I know it's a memoir and not really a manual, but somehow, it has been something of a guidebook for us. I bought it on Kindle for me and a hardcover for Dad; I'm going to buy an extra copy to keep, just to have on hand in case a friend could one day benefit from it, too. Read this book if you are dealing with a sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. Or, give it to someone else who is enduring something similar. You won't regret it.

Short Excerpt Teaser

Chapter 1 1.Life changes fast.Life changes in the instant.You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.The question of self-pity.Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file ("Notes on change.doc") reads "May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.," but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.For a long time I wrote nothing else.Life changes in the instant.The ordinary instant.At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, "the ordinary instant." I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word "ordinary," because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. "He was on his way home from work-happy, successful, healthy-and then, gone," I read in the account of a psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966 I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an "ordinary Sunday morning" it had been. "It was just an ordinary beautiful September day," people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: "Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.""And then-gone." In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside. Later I realized that I must have repeated the details of what happened to everyone who came to the house in those first weeks, all those friends and relatives who brought food and made drinks and laid out plates on the dining room table for however many people were around at lunch or dinner time, all those who picked up the plates and froze the leftovers and ran the dishwasher and filled our (I could not yet think my) otherwise empty house even after I had gone into the bedroom (our bedroom, the one in which there still lay on a sofa a faded terrycloth XL robe bought in the 1970s at Richard Carroll in Beverly Hills) and shut the door. Those moments when I was abruptly overtaken by exhaustion are what I remember most clearly about the first days and weeks. I have no memory of telling anyone the details, but I must have done so, because everyone seemed to know them. At one point I considered the possibility that they had picked up the details of the story from one another, but immediately rejected it: the story they had was in each instance too accurate to have been passed from hand to hand. It had come from me.Another reason I knew that the story had come from me was that no version I heard included the details I could not yet face, for example the blood on the living room floor that stayed there until José came in the next morning and cleaned it up.José. Who was part of our household. Who was supposed to be flying to Las Vegas later that day, December 31, but never went. José was crying that morning as he cleaned up the blood. When I first told him what had happened he had not understood. Clearly I was not the ideal teller of this story, something about my version had been at once too offhand and too elliptical, something in my tone had failed to convey the central fact in the situation (I would encounter the same failure later when I had to tell Quintana), but by the time José saw the blood he understood.I had picked up the abandoned syringes and ECG electrodes before he came in that morning but I could not face the blood.In outline.It is now, as I begin to write this, the afternoon of October 4, 2004.Nine months and five days ago, at approximately nine o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living room of o...