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.