Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 23 Sep 2020

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

When I last wrote on Letterpress about the great US journalist, novelist and essayist, Joan Didion, I focused on her landmark collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (reviewed HERE).

This time I am focusing on Didion’s 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which I have just reread for the second or third time. And at the risk of angering those who consider it not just her best book but one of the best books of the early-Noughties, I have found yet again that it seems to contain some of Didion’s worst faults writ large.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a justifiably famous book and has probably sold more copies around the world than all of Didion’s other books combined. It concerns the sudden death from a massive heart attack of her husband, screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne, on the 30th December 2003. Didion unflinchingly and unsparingly analyses the truly desperate circumstances she found herself in and examines the irrationality – the ‘magical thinking’ – of her grief and subsequent mourning (she is very careful to distinguish between the two). For when her husband died, Quintana, the couple’s adopted daughter, was in a coma in hospital. She had pneumonia which developed into sceptic shock and she was not expected to live. It was not until almost three months after the event that Didion was able to tell her of her father’s death; and Quintana herself died aged thirty-nine just two years later. This is the subject of a second memoir, Blue Nights, published in 2011.

The extraordinary thing about The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s personal, journalistic detachment. No matter how raw her pain, how traumatic the circumstances, no matter how great the pressures of dealing with her husband’s death while also worrying about their daughter and making the best decisions possible regarding her clinical care, the memoir itself is coolly analytical. It refuses banality or false consolation and describes, with Didion’s trademark, almost affectless prose, what has happened to her husband, what is happening or may happen to their daughter, and what is happening to herself. Certainly, it is unlike any other memoir of grief and bereavement I have read – although it isn’t without precedent, in fact: I think Simone de Beauvoir’s marvellous and much shorter memoir from 1964 about her mother’s death, A Very Easy Death, may be its real antecedent.

I can’t quite put my finger on why I find The Year of Magical Thinking to be an unsatisfactory book, why I find it so hard to engage with. It certainly isn’t because I don’t like books about death and grieving. Quite the reverse. It is an essential human experience and being able to write about it in a clear-eyed way that doesn’t give in to empty platitudes is a mark of greatness.

This will sound trite, but ultimately I think what I find off-putting about The Year of Magical Thinking is its tone. But to put this in context, tone is absolutely essential to Didion’s style. One might almost say it is essential to her sense of identity, to her self-image, to what and who she is.

What grates in her tone is not its detachment, its steely gaze, its determination to analyse – these, after all, are the qualities we come to Didion for. It is the unrecognised self-entitlement. (I hesitate to use the word ‘privilege’ because it has become, along with ‘elites’, the trump-card of the moment, bandied about in self-righteous condemnation, especially by those who choose not to recognise themselves as belonging to an ‘elite’).

Perhaps all I really mean is wealth. Didion describes the endless nights spent in posh hotels in the US and Europe during a lifetime in writing, journalism and screen-writing; the beach houses rented for a summer’s script-doctoring – one eye on the comfort of herself and her husband, one on places that will keep Quintana amused; the houses in the Hollywood hills with their swimming pools and jasmine and peacocks on the lawn; friends’ mansions that have offered a quiet refuge for work or relaxation after a hard assignment. The friends with private planes who come forward to help smooth complicated journeys when she is making arrangements for her daughter’s discharge from hospital and recuperation. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that I couldn’t help feeling that the unquestioned –in fact scarcely recognised – trappings of wealth undermine Didion’s famous detachment and cool analysis. But who knows? Perhaps her real aim is to offer an exemplary lesson – to tell us that not even wealth can insulate us from the pain of grief, from a life that changes “in the blink of an eye”.

Yes, the book has marvellous moments. A scene described in its opening pages is like a memento mori in Renaissance art: the candlelit dining room, a log-fire burning against a late-summer chill, plates and silverware on the table, wine glasses glinting, the elegant carpet strewn with used syringes and medical wrappings from the paramedic team whose CPR has failed to save her husband. But even these wonderful vignettes can’t quite overcome the feeling that “the very rich are different from you and me”, as F Scott Fitzgerald said.

Perhaps rereading Didion’s memoir at the height of a Covid-19 pandemic that has visited appalling tragedy on some of the poorest families was a mistake. This has without doubt informed my reaction to the book but it isn’t the source of my misgivings. No, as with much else, Covid-19 simply served to throw an awful spotlight on what was already there, making me see The Year of Magical Thinking in a new way, making me see what perhaps I had previously resisted seeing.


Alun Severn

September 2020


Books elsewhere on Letterpress in which grief features:


Grief is the thing…


Michael Rosen’s Sad Book by Michael Rosen illustrated by Quentin Blake


H is for Hawk : Helen Macdonald’s story of personal tragedy, depression and obsession takes flight


The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks