Day 451: The Year of Magical Thinking

Cover for The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s candid account of the first year after the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the serious illness of their daughter Quintana Roo (which sadly resulted in her death after the time frame of this book).

The couple had just returned from the hospital, where their daughter’s illness had progressed from flu to pneumonia to septic shock. Dunne died in a manner that was so sudden, falling over forward on his face at the table, that Didion at first thought he was joking.

What follows is an honest description of Didion’s mental functioning and thoughts as she tries to deal with competing traumas in her life—the refusal to believe her husband might not be coming back (she won’t give away his shoes in case he needs them), the constant speculation about what she might have done differently that could have saved him (what if they stayed in Malibu? what if they moved to Hawaii?), the attempt to avoid anything that reminds her of time she spent with her husband. She makes a careful distinction between grief and mourning.

What characterizes this book is the unstinting look at the author’s experience, a willingness to document everything, without avoidance or euphemism. Didion’s intelligence shines through every passage as she contemplates our culture’s relationship with death—for one thing, the harm we have done by ridding ourselves of its ceremonies and even its trappings.