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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

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Plot Overview

Joan Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, California, to an Air Force officer and a homemaker whose families had lived in central California for five generations. Descended from the rugged settlers who crossed the continent to find a better life in the West, Didion’s direct, plainspoken writing style reflects her ancestry, and her home state features prominently in her acclaimed essays about the failures of liberalism and the rise of counterculture movements in the 1960s.

Didion attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied English. In 1956, she won Vogue’s Prix de Paris essay prize for young writers, which allowed her to gain experience at the magazine, where she eventually became an associate features editor. While at Vogue, Didion learned how to describe products in detail without cluttering her work with superfluous descriptions, a practice that had a formative effect on her trademark spare prose style. In 1963, she published her first novel, Run River. Thematically, the book tackles nostalgia, death, and irreversible change, all major elements examined in The Year of Magical Thinking. That same year, Didion met and fell in love with John Gregory Dunne, a reporter for Time magazine and a budding novelist. They married at the Catholic Mission San Juan Bautista in January 1964 and shortly thereafter moved to Los Angeles, where they lived for the next twenty-five years.

Soon after moving to California, Didion and Dunne adopted their only child, Quintana Roo, named for a peninsula in the Yucatan. Both writers produced novels, essays, reviews, and screenplays, some of which they wrote together. In 1968, Didion published a collection of essays titled Slouching Toward Bethlehem, compiled from features she had written for the Saturday Evening Post. With a detached, analytical voice, Didion described a breakdown of social order in California, mixing personal reflections with her shrewd social commentary. Two years later, Didion published her second novel, Play It As It Lays, another sharp satire that skewered Hollywood culture. In 1971, the couple’s first collaboration, Panic in Needle Park, hit the big screen. A six-figure salary, a successful film adaptation, and a National Book Award nomination for The White Album in 1981 cemented Didion’s status as one of America’s preeminent literary figures.

Joan Didion is often identified with the New Journalists, a loose grouping of writers that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s that takes its name from a 1973 essay compilation by Tom Wolfe. Norman Mailer and Truman Capote (particularly in his true crime exposé In Cold Blood) are considered the forerunners of the movement, and its other notable practitioners include Wolfe, Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, and Gay Talese. New Journalism sought to break the pattern of the traditional, objective writing style that dominated the New York literary scene in the wake of World War II. New Journalists added scenes, dialogue, and everyday details to enliven their pieces, making them read more like fiction than journalism. They also strove to give the reader insight into their subjects’ thoughts and emotions, in contrast to the strict reportage of surface facts and details by journalists of an earlier generation. The Year of Magical Thinking, while not a strict example of New Journalism, utilizes many of the literary conventions that Didion herself contributed to the movement, such as the book’s nonlinear structure and abundance of subjective detail that Didion offers her readers.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Didion continued to write, publish, and collaborate with Dunne on several film projects. A Book of Common Prayer, a novel, and The White Album, another collection of essays about California, appeared in 1977 and 1979, respectively. Didion and Dunne’s screenplay for the 1976 remake of A Star is Born—and their decision to accept a portion of the film’s profits—secured their financial future. During the 1980s, Didion began to move away from the New Journalism that had made her famous and turned to traditional political reporting, writing about El Salvador’s civil war in Salvador (1983) and the Cold War Cuban-American intrigue in southern Florida in Miami (1987). Her writing output decreased as she focused her attention on shorter essays and articles that allowed her to spend more time with her daughter.

In 1988, the couple relocated to New York, where Didion spent the late 1980s covering American politics. She and Dunne continued to write teleplays, though they always saw their film and television work as primarily a moneymaking venture. The couple spent several years writing and rewriting an adaptation of the biography of ill-fated reporter Jessica Savitch, which turned into the 1996 film Up Close & Personal, a star vehicle for actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Over the course of the 1990s Didion regularly contributed to the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker and published several more novels and essay collections, mostly about politics.

In December 2003, Quintana, then a photo editor at ELLE magazine, was hospitalized with a severe case of flu that developed into pneumonia and septic shock. A few weeks later, John died suddenly of a major heart attack while the couple was sitting down to dinner. Over the next year, Didion tended to her daughter, who was rehospitalized with a subdural hematoma, while also coming to grips with the death of her husband. Her mourning process resulted in The Year of Magical Thinking, a spare, thoughtful meditation on her personal experience of grief. The book was released to massive critical and commercial acclaim in October 2005, earning Didion the National Book Award for nonfiction and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The story also introduced her work to a broad new readership. Though the book ends by relating the initial stages of her daughter’s recovery, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis shortly before the book’s release. In 2006, Didion announced her collaboration with the actress Vanessa Redgrave, set to star in a one-woman Broadway play adapted by Didion from The Year of Magical Thinking.

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