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Summary and book reviews of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking

by Joan Didion

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

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Book Summary

'An act of consummate literary bravery, a writer known for her clarity allowing us to watch her mind as it becomes clouded with grief.'

Winner of the 2006 BookBrowse Ruby Award for Most Popular 2005 Book by Category.

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."

Winner: National Book Award 2005.

Chapter 1


1

Life changes fast.   

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.


Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file ("Notes on change.doc") reads "May 20, 2004, 11:11 p.m.," but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.

For a long time I wrote nothing else.

Life changes in the instant.

The ordinary instant.

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, "the ordinary instant." I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word "ordinary," because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my ...

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 ...
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    National Book Awards
    2005

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    BookBrowse Awards
    2006

Reviews

Media Reviews

The New York Times Book Review, Robert Pinsky

Her book is thrilling . . . a living, sharp, memorable book . . . An exact, candid, and penetrating account of personal terror and bereavement . . . sometimes quite funny because it dares to tell the truth.

New York Review of Books - -John Leonard

I can't think of a book we need more than hers . . . I can't imagine dying without this book.

Los Angeles Times - Gideon Lewis-Kraus

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.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

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.

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

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.

Time - Lev Grossman

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.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Kirkus Reviews

A potent depiction of grief, but also a book lacking the originality and acerbic prose that distinguished Didion's earlier writing.

Library Journal - Maria Kochis

As always, Didion's writing style is sheer and highly efficient. Strongly recommended for all libraries.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Starred Review. Didion describes with compelling precision exactly how grief feels, and how it impairs rational thought and triggers "magical thinking." The result is a remarkably lucid and ennobling anatomy of grief, matched by a penetrating tribute to marriage, motherhood, and love.

Reader Reviews

Charifa Ben Taleb

"In the midst of life we are in death" that says it all!
I've experienced the death of my loved ones too but i was never able to put the feelings i had nor to describe the grief into words, yet Joan managed brilliantly to capture i wouldn't say all the helplessness which take over everything even in ...   Read More

Bridgette Alyce Greathouse Wynn

Insightful, essential
If you haven't read it, I urge you to get a copy of Joan Didion's magical account of her life and its abrupt change when her husband, writer, John Gregory Dunne, passed away...She chronicles a year and a day, in amazingly wonderful word pictures, ...   Read More

Karen

Didion Down Under
A deeply moving insightful representation of self in a mutilated world.

Shirlee B

A Second Reading
My husband gave me this book last summer. I read it but found it somewhat depressing. In September, my husband of 40 years died suddenly of a heart attack. Six months later I thought of Ms Didion' book. I searched my book shelves until I found it. ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, California in 1934, and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956. She is the author of five novels and eight books of non-fiction. Her 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and her book, The White Album (1979), made her famous as an observer of American politics and culture with a distinctive style that mixed personal reflection with social analysis. In 2001 she published Political Fictions which targeted political conservatives with pieces aimed at Newt Gingrich and the Religious Right. This was a radical shift from her earlier writing which had ridiculed various aspects of liberalism. She attributed her shift in opinion to the Republican Party's ...

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