The Year Of Magical Thinking Summary

Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking

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The Year Of Magical Thinking Summary

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Joan Didion, an American contemporary icon of nonfiction writing, published The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005. The book follows events of the year following the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. When he died at 71, the two had been married for more than 40 years, and Didion writes about her attempts to understand the meaning of his death, their marriage, and the impossibility of grief. The title comes from Didion’s moments of “magical thinking.” That is, wishing for a different result or that a fact does not exist. The memoir won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, among other awards.

Its themes include the fallibility of memory, the persistence of love through death, and the impossibility of entirely grieving a loved one.

The memoir opens to the first few lines that Didion typed after the unexpected death of her husband. She notes that life changes fast, and asks what self-pity truly means.

Shortly after visiting their daughter, Quintana, in a Manhattan hospital, John and Joan return home. The day is December 30, 2003. Quintana is currently in a coma. Though she will be moved from the ICU eventually, she will die on August 26, 2005, an experience Didion writes about in her memoir, Blue Nights (2011).

John and Joan sit down for dinner. While they’re eating, Joan notices a strange quiet. She looks up to see John blue in the face. He has suffered a massive heart attack.

Soon after they arrive at the nearest hospital, John is pronounced dead. Didion interrogates herself: did she call the ambulance fast enough? Did they move him fast enough? When exactly did he die?

Though Didion has made a name for herself as an insightful journalist able to accept life’s hardest facts, she is unable to accept John’s death. She reviews her thoughts as they traveled to the hospital, and is surprised that all of the medical staff report how calm she looked when inside, her mind was frantic and unfocused.

Joan questions the nature of grief. Though she’s read up on the subject, it’s unlike anything she thought it would be. It’s more debilitating than she expected and encourages hallucinatory thinking, like her theories that John is really alive someplace else.

Didion keeps returning to the earlier years of their marriage. The pair lived in Los Angeles. They were both successful novelists, as well as screenwriters. She thinks about the moment when she adopted Quintana. She wonders if her trenchant imagination and questions can bring John back to life.

She finds herself forbidding anyone from removing John’s possessions from their residence. He may, she thinks, return and find himself needing a pair of his shoes. She recognizes that this superstitious thinking (or magical thinking) is powerless to bring him back.It’s a fallacy of human thought that she saw in interview subjects, but never before in herself.

She reviews her thoughts and memories in the months before John’s death. Quintana had a severe flu in the winter,and checked into the hospital on Christmas morning. The entire family believed she was improving. Their moods had all improved when Quintana was married in 2002 and John received a new pacemaker that gave him more energy. But when Quintana went into septic shock in the hospital, John sunk deeper into depression. Days before his death, he admitted to his wife he felt like a failure.

Quintana wakes up from her coma in January 2004. Mother and daughter hold a funeral for John. Quintana returns to Malibu, California, to live with her husband and heal. Joan considers how to move on with her own life.

Sadly, Quintana is rushed to the UCLA ER after a major bleed in her brain. The doctors believe she will die, and if she were to survive, she would be a vegetable for the rest of her life. On the plane to LA, Didion tries to calm herself with thoughts of Quintana’s eventual well-being, another example of magical thinking.

Didion reviews her life for any misgivings or signs that could have hinted at John’s death. She rereads his novels, considers the literature they both loved, and reflects on the major moments in both of their careers. She asks what is the nature of grief and mourning, and how (and to what degree) society can tolerate these narcissistic feelings.

She finds herself losing contact with the rest of the world; she is increasingly lost within the memories she and John shared. To counteract this  self-pity, she forces herself to take a journalistic assignment for the New York Review of Books. Her job is to review the Democratic and the Republican national conventions, but the personas she encounters, as well as the procedures of reporting, all remind her of life with John.

Her mind overrun with superstitious and nostalgic thinking, Joan tries to find a way of rekindling her old relationship to the world, a relationship where she was constantly curious and eager to report and write on world events. She wonders, though, if her life can ever be the same, as so much of it was defined by being John’s wife and writing partner.

After reviewing autopsy and ER reports that coldly layout the timeline of John’s death, Didion starts to calm herself and settle into the fact that her husband has passed. The doctors conclude that John was likely dead at the dinner table. When Joan looked up, he was already gone. Joan accepts the fact that she could not have prevented John’s death.Not now, not ever.

Joan does not reach any peace-filled resolution. She focuses on the requirements of quotidian life. She ends the memoir by recalling a memory of her and John catching waves in a cave at Portuguese Bend. She recalls John telling her to go with the swell and change of the ocean.She resolves to remember that advice and she moves forward in life without him.