Year of Magical Thinking (Didion)

The Year of Magical Thinking 
Joan Didion, 2006
Knopf Doubleday
227 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400078431

Didion's journalistic skills are displayed as never before in this story of a year in her life that began with her daughter in a medically induced coma and her husband unexpectedly dead due to a heart attack.

This powerful and moving work 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." With vulnerability and passion, Joan Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience of love and loss.

The Year of Magical Thinking will speak directly to anyone who has ever loved a husband, wife, or child. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 5, 1934 
Where—Sacramento, California, USA 
Education—B.A., University of California at Berkeley
 Awards—National Book Award, 2005 
Currently—New York, New York

For over forty years, Joan Didion has been widely renowned as one of the strongest, wittiest, and most-acerbic voices in journalism, literature, and film. With such fierce works as Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Salvador, and The White Album, she exposed shifting cultural and political climates with humor and unflinching clarity. In classic novels such as A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, and The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion further explored American culture and politics through the veil of fiction.

Together with her husband John Gregory Dunne, she co-wrote films like The Panic in Needle Park and Play It As It Lays. Firmly established as a heavy hitter in the field of sober political criticism, contemporary literature, and cutting humor, no one could have been more unnerved by Didion's psychological unraveling in the wake of a pair of tragedies than Didion herself — a fact she conveys in her brilliant, shattering latest work.

The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles an exceptionally unforgiving period in Didion's life. Her recently married daughter Quintana had been stricken with pneumonia and fell into a coma. Only a week later, her husband and partner of 40-years died of a heart attack. Battered by these events, Didion felt her grip on reality suddenly slipping, expecting her husband to return home at any moment. "Nothing I read about grief seemed to exactly express the craziness of it," Didion later told New York magazine, "which was the interesting aspect of it to me — how really tenuous our sanity is."

As a means of dealing with her intense grief, Didion found herself unconsciously composing the book that would help her work through the pain of losing a husband while watching a daughter slowly fade away. As she told Barnes &

When I began doing it, I was just writing down notes on what the doctors had said, and their telephone numbers, and their recommendations for other specialists, and then I realized that I was writing other stuff down too — and then I thought, well, I'll just write it all down, and then I realized I was thinking about how to structure it, which was kind of a clue that I was writing something.

What she was writing was The Year of Magical Thinking. She explained to New York magazine that she structured her book so that it served as a parallel to the grieving process, "the way in which you obsessively go over the same scenes again and again and again trying to make them end differently." The book ultimately fuses her finely crafted, sardonic prose with a story more personal than any she had ever told before. As Robert Pinsky of the New York Times Book Review wrote, "As in Didion's previous writing, her sense of timing, sentence by sentence and in the arrangement of scenes, draws the reader forward. Her manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous." Pinsky is not alone in his praise of Didion's latest; The Year of Magical Thinking has also received well-deserved raves from publications such as the Washington Post and Library Journal.

Most important of all is the role the book has played in Didion's own recovery from her disastrous year. "It became very useful to me," she says, "useful in terms of processing and trying to figure out what had happened."

Blue Nights about the death of her daughter...and her own impending demise was published in 2012. Kirkus Reviews called it "a slim, somber classic."

From a 2006 Barnes & Noble interview:

• "My first (and only, ever) job was at Vogue. I learned a great deal there—I learned how to use words economically (because I was writing to space), I learned how to very quickly take in enough information about an entirely foreign subject to produce a few paragraphs that at least sounded authoritative.

"I would like my readers to know that writing never gets any easier. You don't gain confidence. You are always flying blind."

• Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, co-wrote seven screenplays, including: The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It As It Lays (1973), A Star Is Born (1977), True Confessions (1982), Hills Like White Elephants (1990), Broken Trust (1995) and Up Close and Personal (1995).

• She is the sister-in-law of author Dominick Dunne and the aunt of actor/director Griffin Dunne.

When asked about which book influenced her most as a writer, here is her response:

It's hard to limit this to one book, but the book from which I learned the most as a writer was Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. I taught myself to type by tying out passages from a lot of Hemingway, but that book especially—it taught me the importance of absolute precision, of how every word and every comma and every absence of a word or comma can change the meaning, make the rhythm, make the difference.

(Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
In her devastating new book, The Year of Magical Thinking, Ms. Didion writes about the year she spent trying to come to terms with what happened that terrible December.... It is an 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.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Though the material is literally terrible, the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative…As in Didion's previous writing, her sense of timing, sentence by sentence and in the arrangement of scenes, draws the reader forward. Her manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous.
Robert Pinsky - 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 may not provide "meaning" to her husband's death or her daughter's illness, but it describes their effects on her with unsparing candor. It was not written as a self-help handbook for the bereaved but as a journey into a place that none of us can fully imagine until we have been there.
Jonathan Yardley - Washington Post

A number of fictional attempts have been made to portray what might lead a teenager to kill a number of schoolmates or teachers, Columbine style, but Shriver's is the most triumphantly accomplished by far. A gifted journalist as well as the author of seven novels, she brings to her story a keen understanding of the intricacies of marital and parental relationships
Publishers Weekly

On December 30, 2003, Didion witnessed the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a massive coronary in their living room. The couple had just returned home after visiting their daughter, Quintana, who had been hospitalized and placed on life support several days earlier, diagnosed with a severe case of septic shock. Several weeks later, their daughter recovered, only to collapse two months later from a massive hematoma that required emergency brain surgery and an arduous recovery. (Quintana Roo Dunne Michael died on August 26, 2005.) This work is both a memoir of Didion's family life and a meditation chronicling the course of her grief. Throughout this account she describes her attempts to study grief, reading extensively on the topic because "information was control." While the events and emotions disclosed are tragic and uncomfortable, the author's description of her relationship with her husband and daughter lend beauty to the tragedy. —Dawn Eckenrode, Daniel A. Reed Lib., SUNY-Fredonia
Library Journal

A moving record of Didion's effort to survive the death of her husband and the near-fatal illness of her only daughter. In late December 2003, Didion (Where I Was From, 2003, etc.) saw her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia, the lingering effects of which would threaten the young woman's life for several months to come. As her daughter struggled in a New York ICU, Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a massive heart attack and died on the night of December 30, 2003. For 40 years, Didion and Dunne shared their lives and work in a marriage of remarkable intimacy and endurance. In the wake of Dunne's death, Didion found herself unable to accept her loss. By "magical thinking," Didion refers to the ruses of self-deception through which the bereaved seek to shield themselves from grief-being unwilling, for example, to donate a dead husband's clothes because of the tacit awareness that it would mean acknowledging his final departure. As a poignant and ultimately doomed effort to deny reality through fiction, that magical thinking has much in common with the delusions Didion has chronicled in her several previous collections of essays. But perhaps because it is a work of such intense personal emotion, this memoir lacks the mordant bite of her earlier work. In the classics Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), Didion linked her personal anxieties to her withering dissection of a misguided culture prey to its own self-gratifying fantasies. This latest work concentrates almost entirely on the author's personal suffering and confusion—even her husband and daughter make but fleeting appearances—without connecting them to the larger public delusions that have been her special terrain. A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion's earlier writing.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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 Didion's "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 avariety 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 Didion's 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 it's from reading medical journals or grilling the doctors at her daughter's 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 Didion's work? Do you see any similar themes or motifs?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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