Joan Didion

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"The Year of Magical Thinking"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann FEB 14, 2007)

"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."

As a writer of nonfiction, Joan Didion has an unparalleled reputation as a no-nonsense journalist who cuts to the heart of an issue.  The beauty of her prose has always derived from the clear-eyed precision of it, the way a phrase nails down a truth without flourish.  In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion's style is startling as it turns inward to the exploration of bereavement and the struggle to survive it.  Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a massive coronary just after Christmas of 2003 while their only daughter Quintana lay in intensive care at Beth Israel North, in a coma from pneumonia and septic shock.  The couple had just returned from visiting Quintana and were preparing to sit down to dinner.  As Didion writes in the first lines of her memoir, "Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."  Dunne simply stopped talking mid-sentence as he was sipping his second glass of Scotch in front of the fireplace.  Although the paramedics fought for forty-five minutes to save Dunne, Didion knew in her heart that her husband of nearly forty years had died in the pause between words, long before she picked up the phone to dial 9-1-1 and even longer before the paramedics entered the apartment.  This memoir chronicles how the author managed both the loss of a beloved husband and the desperation of attending to the recovery of her gravely ill daughter. 

The author's approach to life is far too elegant and analytical to offer sentimentality or even tips for readers in similar situations, but instead she focuses on the humanity of loss, using her own experience as a lens.  Didion's interest lies in how the mind and the life around it changes when confronted with death.  While she often returns to the moment when Dunne died, repeating it as a kind of touchstone, the book focuses mostly on the progression away from that evening and how it changed her.  She finds herself returning over and over to incidents in the past, shared with both Dunne and Quintana, and trying to derive meaning from them.  To her surprise, her formerly analytical mind becomes "crazy," prone to thought-patterns that startle even her.  Always level-headed, Didion finds herself the victim of "magical thinking," or the illogical way the mind works long after grief has outwardly subsided. Didion does not pretend to discover anything new about bereavement:  "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."  What is new, however, is the articulation of what grief does to a person, to this particular person who happens to be a renowned journalist and novelist, and how it connects her to everyone who has gone before her.
If the days and years preceding Dunne's death can seem a little too idyllic, Didion can be forgiven, as this memoir is as much a tribute to her husband and daughter as it is an exploration of bereavement.  Its poignancy comes not from the tears shed (no, Didion repeatedly states that she was a "cool customer") but from the author's intense desire to make sense of the nonsensical.  This groping for understanding, especially in the steady prose of a master writer, becomes a journey that the reader is not likely to forget. 

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Read a chapter excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking at The Borzoi Reader

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About the Author:

Joan DidionJoan Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, California, a fifth generation Californian, she was raised in the great central plain of California. She graduated from the Unversity of California, Berkely in 1956 with BA in English. Much of her writing draws from her life in California in the 60's.

As an undergraduate English major at the University of California, Berkeley, she won an essay prize sponsored by Vogue magazine. As a result, Vogue hired her, and for eight years she lived in New York City, while she rose to associate features editor. She published her first novel, Run River, in 1963 and in the same year, married the writer John Gregory Dunne. In 1964 the couple returned to California, where they remained for twenty-five years.

Joan collaborated with and was married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years, until he died in December 30, 2003. Their only daughter, Quintana, died after a long illness in August 2005 at the age of 39. She did not start writing The Year of Magical Thinking until ten months after her husband's death.

Didion lives in New York City and writes essays for the the New York Review of Books. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014