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The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

Chapters 13 and 14

Chapter 12

Chapters 15 and 16

Summary

In the period following John’s death, Didion says, she had stopped dreaming. She begins again in the summer of 2004 and recounts a few dreams that she remembers. In one, she becomes separated from John in an airport and he takes off on a flight to Hawaii without her. Alone in the apartment she shared with John, Didion clings to objects that remind her of him. For example, she exclusively uses a set of china purchased by John’s mother for his first New York apartment. Because the two of them spent almost every day of their marriage together, Didion doesn’t have any letters from him, only souvenirs of their many trips. Didion remembers one New Year’s Eve the whole family spent in Honolulu, where she and John were working on a film project. Watching the fireworks from the hotel balcony as John slept in the next room, Didion felt a profound sense of contentment. A few weeks before he died, John read aloud a passage from her novel A Book of Common Prayer. Afterward, he told her that she could never again tell him that she couldn’t write, a compliment that brought tears to her eyes. Looking back, she sees the emotional moment as an omen.

Over the summer, Didion becomes anxious about her own physical wellbeing. When her sandal catches on the sidewalk and she trips, the thought of falling and hurting herself, with no one at home to care for her, causes her to start wearing sneakers. She also starts leaving the lights on overnight. When a young writer asks her if he can do a profile on her, she vehemently refuses. She admits to the reader that she had felt too vulnerable and had worried that she would be unable to “present a coherent face to the world.”

A few days later, while stacking magazines—an act that provides her with a small measure of control—Didion comes across a story by an acquaintance, Roxana Robinson, about a man dealing with the loss of a daughter. The man’s emotional rawness and fragility mirrors Didion’s own. Later, during a visit to her doctor, a longtime family friend, she bursts into tears when asked how she’s doing. The doctor had taken an active role in looking after Quintana during her illness, and Didion expresses chagrin that, after all his help and kindness, she’s returning the favor by breaking down in his office. She says that she cannot see the upside in the situation, a difficult admission for someone who has always been able to see the silver lining.

Didion has always believed herself to be a lucky person, and she tells herself she has no right to think of herself as unlucky now. She thinks back to see if luck ever played a role in her life. She recalls how, after Quintana lost both an uncle and a cousin, John had assured the teenager that it all evened out in the end. Didion was perplexed by that statement but now realizes that John hadn’t meant that people who receive bad news will eventually have their share of good news, but that bad news comes to everyone in time. Didion says she doesn’t believe in luck because she has always believed in her own ability to control the events of her life. But she realizes that, rather than holding herself responsible for not being able to prevent John’s death and Quintana’s illness, a part of her actually blames John and Quintana themselves.

Analysis

Didion fixates on her memories of John and tries to maintain a connection to him by clinging to mementos of their life together. She starts to understand that, because they shared so much of their time together, her memories have a greater value to her than the few gifts and physical objects they had exchanged. Didion places increased value on the objects that represent John as an individual, independent of their relationship, because they help fill his absence more effectively. She draws comfort from the dishes his mother gave him before their wedding, for example. At the same time, her ability to appreciate and take comfort in the memories that they shared shows that she is no longer a passive subject overwhelmed by her memories, nor a student analyzing her own memory as a way of making sense of her situation. She’s increasingly comfortable seeing her memories of John as just that—memories, rather than signs to interpret or tools for understanding.

Didion’s repeated explanations of her need for control in the face of a crisis exposes her reluctance to accept chance, which leads her to believe that John’s death and Quintana’s illness were preventable situations for which blame can be assigned. Didion had misunderstood John’s explanation to Quintana that everything evens out in the end, since she believed that, while everyone must shoulder their share of bad news, they also have an equal share of good news. Her outlook is optimistic, borne out of the belief that when tragedy strikes, people can make their own luck to improve the situation. John’s statement was in fact pessimistic, indicating that no matter what a person does, bad luck will eventually strike everyone. Didion realizes that because of her optimistic worldview, she had believed that her personal tragedies happened as something someone did—or did not do. Though she intellectually understands that no individual action caused her husband to die or her daughter to get sick, her worldview prompts her to assign blame when something bad happens. In this case, she realizes that she had been subconsciously blaming John and Quintana for allowing tragedy to strike, and that by engaging in magical thinking she was somehow trying to “fix” the problem.

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