Synopses & Reviews
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.
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."
"Many will greet this taut, clear-eyed memoir of grief as a long-awaited return to the terrain of Didion's venerated, increasingly rare personal essays. The author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and 11 other works chronicles the year following the death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, from a massive heart attack on December 30, 2003, while the couple's only daughter, Quintana, lay unconscious in a nearby hospital suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. Dunne and Didion had lived and worked side by side for nearly 40 years, and Dunne's death propelled Didion into a state she calls 'magical thinking.' 'We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss,' she writes. 'We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.' Didion's mourning follows a traditional arc she describes just how precisely it cleaves to the medical descriptions of grief but her elegant rendition of its stages leads to hard-won insight, particularly into the aftereffects of marriage. 'Marriage is not only time: it is also, paradoxically, the denial of time. For forty years I saw myself through John's eyes. I did not age.' In a sense, all of Didion's fiction, with its themes of loss and bereavement, served as preparation for the writing of this memoir, and there is occasionally a curious hint of repetition, despite the immediacy and intimacy of the subject matter. Still, this is an indispensable addition to Didion's body of work and a lyrical, disciplined entry in the annals of mourning literature. Agent, Lynn Nesbit. 60,000 first printing; 11-city author tour. (Oct. 19)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] master essayist, great American novelist, and astute political observer....[A] remarkably lucid and ennobling anatomy of grief, matched by a penetrating tribute to marriage, motherhood, and love." Booklist (Starred Review)
"A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion's earlier writing." Kirkus Reviews
"[T]he predominant atmosphere is one of authentic suspense that makes for a remarkable page-turner. As always, Didion's writing style is sheer and highly efficient." Library Journal
"[A]n utterly shattering book that gives the reader an indelible portrait of loss and grief and sorrow, all chronicled in minute detail with the author's unwavering, reportorial eye....[P]rovides a haunting portrait of a four-decade-long marriage, an extraordinarily close relationship between two writers." Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times
"[A] spare and searing memoir....[T]he raw feeling [Didion] funnels into her taut sentences has all the more power because it is so tightly rationed. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"This book is about getting a grip and getting on; it's also a tribute to an extraordinary marriage." The New Yorker
"Didion's book is thrilling and engaging sometimes quite funny....Though the material is literally terrible, the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative." Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review
"The Year of Magical Thinking, though it spares nothing in describing Didion's confusion, grief and derangement, is a work of surpassing clarity and honesty....It is also as close as Didion will be able to come to a final conversation with John Gregory Dunne." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
"This is a sad and anguished book, told in some of the plainest, yet most eloquent prose you'll ever encounter. Everyone who has ever lost anyone, or will ever lose anyone, would do well to read it." Seattle Times
"The book is an exacting self-examination, but it is also a heartbreaking, though far from sentimentalized, love letter, engrossing in its candor." The Boston Globe
"Readers of average and above sensitivity will not find The Year of Magical Thinking
easy going; melancholy, loneliness and mortality are waiting with the turn of nearly every page. But it is also written in Didion's usual spare, dramatic prose, and it is also a love story, with its telling flashbacks from an unconventional forty year marriage that nonetheless revolved around children, meals, fireplaces and hotels in Honolulu. Didion ultimately offers a fiercely intelligent portrait of grief, at a time when that particular experience is so often treated gingerly, sappily, and then hidden away." Anna Godbersen, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
"Didion's memoir of her year of mourning is largely a story of her growing self-awareness of the futility of attempting to control events that are beyond any mortal's control. Although there are moments when she tries to reckon with her feelings of powerlessness...her constant need to detect, and to expunge, all signs of self-pity...means that even her book's occasional inward moments have an emotionally detached feel." Rochelle Gurstein, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
About the Author
Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She is the author of five novels and seven previous books of nonfiction.
Reading Group Guide
1. Consider the four sentences in italics that begin chapter one. What did you think when you read them for the first time? What do you think now?
2. In particular, address “The question of self-pity.” Does Didion pity herself? In what ways does she indulge that impulse, and in what ways does she deny it?
3. Read the Judges Citation for the National Book Award, above. Why do you suppose they deemed the book a masterpiece of investigative journalism?
4. Discuss the notion of “magical thinking.” Have you ever experienced anything like this, after a loss or some other life-changing occurrence? How did it help, or hinder, your healing?
5. Do you think Didions “year of magical thinking” ended after one year, or did it likely continue?
6. Consider the tone Didion uses throughout the book, one of relatively cool detachment. Clearly she is in mourning, and yet her anguish is quite muted. How did this detached tone affect your reading experience?
7. How does Didion use humor? To express her grief, to deflect it, or for another purpose entirely?
8. Over the course of the book, Didion excerpts a variety of poems. Which resonated for you most deeply, and why?
9. To Didion, there is a clear distinction between grief and mourning. What differences do you see between the two?
10. One word critics have used again and again in describing this book is “exhilarating.” Did you find it to be so? Why, or why not?
11. Discuss Didions repetition of sentences like “For once in your life just let it go”; “We call it the widowmaker”; “I tell you that I shall not live two days”; and “Life changes in the instant.” What purpose does the repetition serve? How did your understanding of her grief change each time you reread one of these sentences?
12. The lifestyle described in this book is quite different from the way most people live, with glamorous friends, expensive homes, and trips to Hawaii, Paris, South America, etc., and yet none of that spared Didion from experiencing profound grief. Did her seemingly privileged life color your feelings about the book at all? Did that change after reading it?
13. At several points in the book Didion describes her need for knowledge, whether its from reading medical journals or grilling the doctors at her daughters bedside. How do you think this helped her to cope?
14. Reread the “gilded-boy story” on pages 105-6. How would you answer the questions it raised for Didion?
15. Is there a turning point in this book? If so, where would you place it and why?
16. The last sentence of the book is “No eye is on the sparrow but he did tell me that.” What does this mean?
17. Didion is adapting The Year of Magical Thinking into a play bound for Broadway. How do you imagine its transition from page to stage? Would you want to see the play?
18. Before The Year of Magical Thinking, had you ever read any of Joan Didions work? Do you see any similar themes or motifs?
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Joan Didions powerful, National Book Award-winning memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. A spare, lucid, and remarkably moving examination of the year following her husbands sudden death just before their fortieth anniversary, it is the story of Didions search for answers, for relief, and above all for the chance to change the course of events. Filled with often surprising insights and more than a dash of humor, it is one of the most critically acclaimed books of the decade.