The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage International)
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER • From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion that 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.
Praise For The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage International)…
—Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review
“Stunning candor and piercing details. . . . An indelible portrait of loss and grief.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“I can’t think of a book we need more than hers. . . . I can’t imagine dying without this book.”
—John Leonard, New York Review of Books
“Achingly beautiful. . . . We have come to admire and love Didion for her preternatural poise, unrivaled eye for absurdity, and Orwellian distaste for cant. It is thus a difficult, moving, and extraordinarily poignant experience to watch her direct such scrutiny inward.”
—Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Los Angeles Times
“An act of consummate literary bravery, a writer known for her clarity allowing us to watch her mind as it becomes clouded with grief. . . . It also skips backward in time [to] call up a shimmering portrait of her unique marriage. . . . To make her grief real, Didion shows us what she has lost.”
—Lev Grossman, Time
Vintage, 9781400078431, 240pp.
Publication Date: February 13, 2007
About the Author
Didion’s first volume of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was published in 1968, and her second, The White Album, was published in 1979. Her nonfiction works include Salvador (1983), Miami (1987), After Henry (1992), Political Fictions (2001), Where I Was From (2003), We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (2006), Blue Nights (2011), South and West (2017) and Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021). Her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2005.
In 2005, Didion was awarded the American Academy of Arts & Letters Gold Medal in Criticism and Belles Letters. In 2007, she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. A portion of National Book Foundation citation read: "An incisive observer of American politics and culture for more than forty-five years, Didion’s distinctive blend of spare, elegant prose and fierce intelligence has earned her books a place in the canon of American literature as well as the admiration of generations of writers and journalists.” In 2013, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts and Humanities by President Barack Obama, and the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Didion said of her writing: "I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” She died in December 2021.
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
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?
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?
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?
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?
How does Didion use humor? To express her grief, to deflect it, or for another purpose entirely?
To Didion, there is a clear distinction between grief and mourning. What differences do you see between the two?
Discuss Didion’s repetition of sentences like “For once in your life just let it go”; “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?
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?
Is there a turning point in this book? If so, where would you place it and why?
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?