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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapters 19–21

Chapter 18

Chapter 22

Summary

Didion has trouble thinking of herself as a widow, just as she once had trouble adjusting to the idea of being a wife. In the early days of their marriage, Didion used to pick fights with John by accusing him of wanting a wife more like Lenny, his brother Nick’s wife, who frequently entertained and always looked put together. John always said that if he wanted to marry someone more like Lenny, he would have. Didion says she had no idea how to be a wife, and in their first few years together they were constantly improvising. They often sat down to plan for the future, but these meetings usually accomplished very little besides the accumulation of notes and receipts. After finding a set of files from one of these meetings, Didion remembers how, in 1978, they faced a financial crunch while trying to sell their house. They took off for a vacation in Hawaii to ponder the situation—a strange response, she admits, but when they saw the sun come out they knew that things would work out all right, and they did. Didion notes that this process of “improvisation” lasted their entire marriage, and while she once thought that process would never end, she sees now that it has and wonders what she would have done differently had she known that in advance.

Nearly a year has passed since John died. Didion buys new Christmas lights to replace the ones that burned out last year, and they serve as a symbol of her faith in the future. December feels as it has in years past, with the same routines and holiday preparations occasionally interrupted by thoughts of John. Didion notices she that she has lost the necessary skills for regular social encounters, and that she lacks the resilience she had before John’s death. She eventually writes a piece about the Democratic and Republican conventions, but she has trouble finishing it since John is not there to read it. She eventually imagines John chastising her that, as a professional, she must finish it. Checking the final draft before publication, she’s shocked at the number of errors she has made. She attributes the mistakes to the “cognitive deficits” that have debilitated her since John’s death, and, remembering John’s earlier admonition that she always needs to be right, wonders if she will ever be “right” again.

Didion recalls how, one night in the Beth Israel ICU, Quintana’s husband Gerry had said that his wife was still beautiful, even as she lay unconscious and hooked up to tubes and machines. The statement had moved John tremendously. Didion can’t remember what night it was that Gerry said that, just as she can’t remember what night John had sat in the taxi cab with her and said that his life was worthless. She remembers how, as a child, Quintana was afraid of a figure she called the Broken Man. Her parents always assured her that they wouldn’t let him take her, and Quintana responded that, if he tried, she would hold onto the fence and not let go. Didion notes that the Broken Man came for both her daughter and her husband, and one held on while the other did not.

Analysis

Didion says that marriage is a constant state of improvisation, and the book shows how her improvisatory tendencies changed when she no longer had a partner. Didion recounts various situations that required her and John to think pragmatically or find solutions to apparently insoluble problems, and how they continually made choices that seemed likely to get them into even more trouble. However, their willingness to throw caution to the wind testified to the strength of their relationship, since they were always able to adapt to whatever consequences they faced because they faced those consequences together. It wasn’t just dumb luck that helped them through the high-pressure situations: it was the sense of security each felt in the relationship and in their shared future. John’s sudden death and Quintana’s illness has shaken Didion’s ability to maintain her belief that things will work out. While she will never be able to as secure or freewheeling as she was when John was alive, Didion has nonetheless started to regain her “faith in the future.”

In the final chapters of the memoir, Didion ceases to mention the vortex effect and magical thinking. After a year, she has begun to step out of her state of madness and engage with the world, a transition signaled by the shorter chapters and emotionally detached tone. Though she is still deeply engaged in the process of mourning, she is now capable of looking at the world rationally. While earlier chapters in the book are dense, moving between her reactions, memories, and research, these final chapters take on a hushed, sedate tone. The previous chapters capture Didion’s sense of disorientation and madness by shifting between subjects from paragraph to paragraph. Now that she has left that phase behind, her writing sounds a little bit dazed, as if she’s still getting used to this new, more clear-headed emotional state. The chapters are short and to the point, and her emotional reactions and intellectual responses are less vividly detailed. Just as the fading of the vortex and magical thinking signal the end of her period of temporary insanity, so does the memoir’s emotional retreat signal the approaching conclusion of the narrative.

Though Didion has begun to take the initial steps to re-engage with her life, she does so tentatively, reinforcing her statement that mourning is an ongoing process that she has only just started. The process of active engagement is a painful one, and occasionally she slips back into the passive state of grief and her memories once again overtake her. However, she manages to write and submit a piece, even though it makes John’s absence even sharper, since he has always been her constant editor and writing companion. She finds ways to take part in holiday celebrations and enjoy the company of friends, even though she feels vulnerable and cagey when put in large social situations. Didion shows the subtle transformations that occur as human beings begin to come to terms with tragedy. She does not provide a neat resolution or an optimistic uplift, as many grief narratives do. Instead, she illustrates an important shift in her own consciousness and how the subtle changes that do occur, even when the threat of backtracking remains, are transformative and revelatory.

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