Reading guide for The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking

by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 240 pages
    Feb 2007, 214 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Joan Didion’s powerful, National Book Award–winning memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. A spare, lucid, and remarkably moving examination of the year following her husband’s sudden death just before their fortieth anniversary, it is the story of Didion’s 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.

  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 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 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?

  19. A selected bibliography, The Year of Magical Thinking:
    The Hour of Our Death and Western Attitudes Towards Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, Philippe Ari's; “Mourning and Melancholia,” Sigmund Freud; “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States,” Melanie Klein; A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis; The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann; “The Forsaken Merman,” Matthew Arnold; The Ascent of F6, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood; Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care, compiled by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine; Dutch Shea, Jr., Harp, and True Confessions, John Gregory Dunne; Emily Post's Etiquette; Death, Grief, and Mourning, Geoffrey Gorer; How We Die, Sherwin B. Nuland; Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journal, John F. Murray, M. D.; Clinical Neuroanatomy, Stephen G. Waxman, M.D.; A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted, and Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion; Alcestis, Euripides; Leftover Life to Kill, Caitlin Thomas

    For further reading:
    Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron; A Slender Thread, Diane Ackerman; Night Falls Fast, Kay Redfield Jamison; The Burn Journals, Brent Runyon

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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