THOUGHTS ON: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion


My contribution to Nonfiction November

I did not believe in the resurrection of the body but I still believed that given the right circumstances he would come back.”

MAGICAL THINKINGJoan Didion is an author best known for her perceptive literary essays and memoirs, who has explored moral degeneration and cultural chaos in America through her writing since the 1960s. The Year of Magical Thinking is her frank account of the months following the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. It is my book of choice for Nonfiction November.

On 30th December 2003, as he and his wife sat down to eat dinner in their New York apartment, 71-year-old Dunne suffered a sudden cardiac arrest from which he did not recover. For the previous five nights their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, had been lying unconscious in intensive care, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock – they had just returned from visiting her in hospital.

Didion’s devastating book about loss tells the story from the moment of his collapse and her immediate response to the emergency, to her daily struggle to comprehend his death, her daughter’s continuing ill-health and her eventual, if reluctant, acceptance of his absence. Although she remains remarkably detached in this unflinching analysis, almost as if recounting events in another person’s life, her narrative of agonising personal loss and the nature of bereavement is tender and nostalgic without ever becoming mawkish.

Ultimately, this is the story of a woman learning to live with grief. She goes from being one half of the hottest literary couple in the USA; from being part of a supportive, gregarious, inseparable partnership of some forty years; to becoming an individual who must navigate social occasions and quotidian existence on her own.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a brave, raw, powerfully moving work, which speaks lucidly to anyone who has experienced the loss of a life companion.


NB Nonfiction November is an annual challenge to read, critique and discuss non-fiction books through the most autumnal of months. It is hosted by Rennie (What’s Nonfiction?), Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Julie (JulzReads) and Katie (Doing Dewey).


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36 replies

  1. Love Joan! This book is unforgettable.

  2. I thought this was an extraordinary book, raw but beautiful as you say. I hope it was cathartic for Didion.

  3. I thought this book was extraordinary – so erudite and yet still so raw. A brilliant piece of writing.

  4. I saw Vanessa Redgrave in the stage adaptation of this at the National in London about 10 years ago. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen.

  5. wonderful review, Paula, you really captured it. This was such a devastating but beautiful book. I was amazed at the detachment she displayed too but I liked the effect it had overall, really powerful.

    • Thank you, Rennie. Well, the month has almost come to an end but I’ve enjoyed Nonfiction November immensely. I’m only sorry there hasn’t been time to contribute more. Will it happen again in 2019? If so, I’ll definitely take part.

  6. Good luck for the rest of the month! I also have Joan Didion’s Blue Nights in my TBR for this month, but I don’t think I’ll be able to get to it by the end of the month. She’s on the top of my TBR, though.

  7. Wow, this sounds incredible. I have yet to read Didion, but I have Slouching toward Bethlehem tbr. Adding this to my wishlist.

  8. I started reading this book some time ago and didn’t finish it (I think I was reading it at my mum’s and had to go home). The opening sequence describing her husband’s sudden death is so vivid and harrowing. I should definitely go back to it.

  9. I loved this book. I read it about a month after my mother died and found it very comforting.

  10. This book’s been one of my favorite reads this year, and you write about it thoughtfully, Paula. Didion’s story is moving, and her prose is as lucid as ever in this.

  11. Didion’s an excellent writer and this is a particularly powerful book – unforgettable.

  12. I haven’t come across this but will definitely read it sounds incredible, thank you.

  13. This is one which has been on my TBR for years and, more recently, I spotted a documentary about her life which reminded me that she is worth a little reading project, even beyond this classic! Glad to hear that you found it so moving and meaningful.

    • Likewise Marcie, it was on my TBR list for years. I’m so glad I got around to reading it eventually. I bet that documentary was fascinating.

      • Oh, I haven’t watched it yet: I just saw it described somewhere and thought to myself “I better get to reading her so that I can watch that without worrying about spoilers (for her fiction)”!

  14. Have just been introduced to Joan Didion in my course, and watched Netflix documentary “Joan Didion: The Centre will not Hold”. I’ve got “Blue Nights” on hold at my local library which I believe follows on after the subsequent loss of her daughter soon after, and her reflections on her parenting.


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