The Year of Magical Thinking is Joan Didion’s account of the year following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and her attempts to make sense of her grief while tending to the severe illness of her adopted daughter, Quintana.
On December 30, 2003, John and Didion go to the hospital to visit their daughter, who is in a coma in the intensive care unit. Later that evening, John has a massive heart attack while sitting down to dinner in their New York apartment. He is pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital, but Didion finds herself unable to accept this fact even as she arranges for an autopsy and plans for his funeral.
As she tries to make sense of John’s death and her own changed identity, Didion discovers that grief is not what she expected it to be. Consumed by memories of the years they lived in Los Angeles, shortly after they married and adopted Quintana, Didion feels that she has entered a state of temporary insanity. Though cool and collected on the surface, she begins to believe that her wishes might have the power to bring John back. To this end, she refuses to give away his clothes and shoes, believing that her husband will need them when he returns to her. She calls this childlike belief that her thoughts and wishes can alter reality “magical thinking.” She finds numerous examples of this behavior in the literature she studies on grief and mourning, which ranges from poems, novels, psychological texts, and even etiquette books.
As Didion tries to figure out a way to fix the situation and bring John back, she becomes fixated on her memories of the months leading up to his death. Also in December of that year, Quintana had developed a severe case of flu that worsened in the days leading up to Christmas, though doctors reassured her that she was on the road to recovery. On Christmas morning, Quintana checked into the hospital, where she went into septic shock as a result of the pneumonia that had overtaken her lungs. Though John’s spirits had been buoyed by both a new pacemaker as well as Quintana’s wedding earlier that year, the news of his daughter’s condition devastated him, prompting him to begin assessing his own life. Several days before his death, John had told his wife that he felt he was a failure. Quintana doesn’t wake from her coma until January 2004, though soon after being discharged she must return briefly, because of blood clotting in her legs. After her second release, the family decides to hold the funeral for John, after which Quintana will travel to Malibu, California, with her husband to recuperate. Didion realizes that she will have to get back to her life as well.
Shortly after arriving in the Los Angeles airport, however, Quintana experiences a massive brain hemorrhage that requires emergency neurosurgery at UCLA. Doctors fear she will not survive, and if she does, that she may have suffered brain damage. Didion immediately flies to Los Angeles to be with Quintana, reassuring her that she will get better even though she knows that she is powerless to protect her daughter. Didion spends every day at the hospital and begins to experience what she calls “the vortex effect,” a reaction in which environmental triggers unexpectedly set off emotionally crippling flashbacks of her life with John and Quintana. Though she tries to avoid landmarks that remind her of in the happy years the family spent in Los Angeles in the 1970s, the vortex effect occurs at the most unexpected times. After several months, Quintana moves to a stepdown observational unit, with plans made to transfer her to the Rusk Institute in New York. After the transfer, Quintana again begins the slow process of recuperation and Didion again tries to resume her life.
Didion begins to examine her memories for omens and symbols that might have warned her of John’s impending death. She looks to literature, to events from their shared life , and to clues that John seemed to leave in his own novels. She becomes consumed with the idea of self-pity, its relationship to grief and mourning, and how these feelings are perceived by society. Realizing that she had almost never been separated from her husband during their forty years of marriage, she finds herself turning inward in her solitude, consumed by her own thoughts. In an effort to get back to her normal life, she makes plans to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions for the New York Review of Books. Though the conventions seem to pose little risk of setting off the vortex effect, she finds herself paralyzed by memories no matter where she goes or what she does.
Didion begins to feel that she has gone insane as she experiences both magical thinking and the vortex effect. To regain her grip on reality, Didion looks back to her past and tries to remember what the world used to mean to her. As a child, she remembers, she fixated on meaninglessness, believing that the massive geological changes that occur slowly over time indicated the smallness and brevity of human experience. As an adult, she had once found meaning in the routines of her life and in her role as a wife and mother, but she now realizes that, following John’s death, she has lost the sense of self those roles once afforded her. Though she understands that John is dead, Didion cannot understand how or why. Her thinking only begins to clarify once she receives the emergency room and autopsy reports, nearly a year after John’s death. The reports confirm that John was dead from the moment he sat down to dinner. Didion could have tried to fix the situation, but it would have been futile; there was nothing she could have done about it then, and nothing she can do about it now. Didion’s vivid memories of the months before John’s death begin to fade, but though her heated mental state subsides, no clarity or sense of purpose replaces it. Didion begins to focus again on the routines of daily life, accepting the inevitability of change, which forces us to adapt and, eventually, to move on.