The Year of Magical Thinking documents Didion’s experience of grief after losing her husband John, but it also serves as a memorial to the intensity of the relationship they shared throughout their forty-year marriage. While the book is shaped by Didion’s perspective, John’s personality comes across more strongly than anyone else’s, making him the most fully realized character in the book—even more so than Didion herself. Didion can suppress neither her enthusiastic affection for John nor her utter devastation at his loss. She draws a vivid picture of John through stories from their life together, her commentary on his behavior, and even snatches of his own writing. He comes across as a sharp, boisterous, engaging, and endearingly curmudgeonly man who had a deep love and respect for his wife and daughter. Didion never speaks of him submissively or deferentially, which demonstrates the equality they enjoyed in their marriage. John and Didion’s relationship didn’t follow conventional gender norms, given their liberal lifestyle, their wealth—which allowed them flexibility and mobility—and the shared interests that made them partners, collaborators, and peers.

The Year of Magical Thinking is not only a memoir of Joan Didion’s grieving process but also a way of honoring her husband and testifying to the intensity of their relationship. At the same time, she bristles at the idea that anyone could understand her relationship with John, which was so personal, private, and specific. This makes the book something of a conflicted work, since as much as Didion wants to celebrate her beloved husband, her reticence at the thought of sharing too much makes her keep him at a distance from the reader.