To understand Joan Didion’s character in this, her highly personal memoir, it’s important to place The Year of Magical Thinking in context with her larger body of work, and to understand the public, writerly persona she developed in her earlier books and articles.
One of the most respected journalists and writers that emerged from the New Journalism movement, Joan Didion became famous in intellectual circles for her incisive, thoughtful commentaries on American culture and politics. She was unique among her peers for her distinctive style. Didion’s prose is pared down, rigorous, and formal—even as she addresses complex political and social issues—and often juxtaposes seemingly unrelated stories and images. Like many New Journalists, she explicitly uses her own voice and impressions of a given situation, breaking away from the standard of objectivity that was the hallmark of traditional American journalism. She introduces herself as a character in her own essays so that her own opinions and ideology interact with the objective facts of the story. Still, she strives to achieve a balance in her work, engaging with her subjects on a personal level while maintaining an emotional distance. Her detachment has led many critics to comment that she comes across as chilly and distanced in her books and essays.
In contrast, The Year of Magical Thinking gives unique insight into Joan Didion’s personal life. More than ever before, her private thoughts and emotions are on display. The book unfolds less like a traditional, well-structured literary narrative and more like memory itself. It is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, in which ideas are introduced and repeated, images and memories get triggered unexpectedly, and information is processed in real time and then integrated into the overall narrative. In this book, Didion doesn’t simply tell us how she thinks: she shows us. Despite this unexpectedly personal shift in her writing style, however, Didion’s inner self continues to remain elusive throughout The Year of Magical Thinking. Though she invites the reader into her most personal memories and thoughts, the narrative is ultimately driven by her reasoned, unemotional analysis of the grief process. By taking a highly intellectual approach and sprinkling her cool-headed text with deeply personal confessions, she manages to make her memoir feel confidential while still keeping herself emotionally distanced from the reader.
The Year of Magical Thinking documents Didion’s experience of grief after losing her husband John, but it also serves as a memorial to the intensity of the relationship they shared throughout their forty-year marriage. While the book is shaped by Didion’s perspective, John’s personality comes across more strongly than anyone else’s, making him the most fully realized character in the book—even more so than Didion herself. Didion can suppress neither her enthusiastic affection for John nor her utter devastation at his loss. She draws a vivid picture of John through stories from their life together, her commentary on his behavior, and even snatches of his own writing. He comes across as a sharp, boisterous, engaging, and endearingly curmudgeonly man who had a deep love and respect for his wife and daughter. Didion never speaks of him submissively or deferentially, which demonstrates the equality they enjoyed in their marriage. John and Didion’s relationship didn’t follow conventional gender norms, given their liberal lifestyle, their wealth—which allowed them flexibility and mobility—and the shared interests that made them partners, collaborators, and peers.
The Year of Magical Thinking is not only a memoir of Joan Didion’s grieving process but also a way of honoring her husband and testifying to the intensity of their relationship. At the same time, she bristles at the idea that anyone could understand her relationship with John, which was so personal, private, and specific. This makes the book something of a conflicted work, since as much as Didion wants to celebrate her beloved husband, her reticence at the thought of sharing too much makes her keep him at a distance from the reader.
Throughout the book, Quintana primarily functions as a device through which Didion analyzes her feelings about grief, memory, and the relationship between parents and children. Didion presents Quintana—from her biographical details to the quirks of her personality—through the prism of her personal memories of her daughter, rather than showing the reader the live, adult Quintana as a fully-realized character in her own right. Quintana functions in her mother’s memoir much as the character of Cat does in John Dunne’s novel True Confessions: that is, as a composite of memories and sayings interpreted through a literary lens but ultimately distinct from the actual person. Didion never shows the reader who Quintana really is, preferring instead to analyze her relationship with her daughter in the broadest terms. Though the logic behind this decision may be purely practical, as a way of protecting the privacy of her late daughter and her daughter’s husband Gerry, the result is a feeling of deep affinity for Quintana without a corresponding understanding of who she was a person. Since Quintana spends most of the book in either a coma or a state of slow recovery, it makes sense that Didion rarely interacts with her in a way that would allow us to better understand Quintana. However, this literary strategy also keeps the book’s focus on Didion’s relationship with John, allowing Quintana’s presence to illustrate more abstract ideas about motherhood and family. Quintana’s death, a tragic postscript to the events of the memoir, only makes her apparent road to recovery in the final chapters all the more emotionally resonant and painful.