Joan Didion

The narrator and protagonist of the book, a celebrated American journalist, novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. Didion describes the events of the year following her husband John’s death, during which her daughter Quintana became seriously ill.

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John Gregory Dunne

Didion’s husband, a well-respected American novelist and screenwriter. While sitting down to dinner in their home, John dies suddenly of a massive heart attack. His death sets off a period of profound grieving for Didion.

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Quintana Roo Dunne

John and Didion’s adult daughter, adopted at birth. While dealing with her husband’s death, Didion must also deal with a severe string of ailments afflicting her only child.

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Quintana’s husband.


Didion’s brother.


Wife of Didion’s brother, Jim.

Nick Dunne

John’s brother, the writer Dominick Dunne.

Lenny Dunne

Nick Dunne’s wife. After they first married, Didion would occasionally goad John about the fact that his wife was not as put together or social as Lenny.

Dominique Dunne

The daughter of John’s brother, Nick. A film actress, Dominique was strangled to death by her boyfriend in 1982, at the age of twenty-two.

Tony Dunne

John’s brother.

Rosemary Breslin

Tony Dunne’s wife. At the time of Quintana’s collapse at LAX, Rosemary was in poor health. When Tony calls Didion to tell her of Quintana’s condition, she assumes he is calling because something happened to Rosemary. She dies in June 2004.

Joe and Gertrude Black

A couple that John and Didion met in Indonesia in the 1980s. Joe had left his job at the Rockefeller Foundation to teach political science in Jogjakarta.

The Doctor

A longtime friend of John and Didion’s, based in New York, who looks after Quintana during both stages of her illness. Didion breaks down in his office when he asks her how she’s doing.

John MacFayden

A deceased, former member of the Princeton Nassoons, an all-male university singing group. Didion looks up MacFayden’s obituary when looking for the name of the song that John used to sing when making fun of the group.

Earl McGrath

A friend of the Dunnes’. When Quintana collapses at LAX, Didion calls Earl to see if she can use his house, and he offers her a spot on the private plane he’s taking to L.A. the next day. While in L.A., he calls her daily, and when she doesn’t have plans for the evening he takes her out for quiet dinners with friends.

Jean and Brian Moore

Friends of Didion’s since the 1960s, part of her social circle in Malibu from the early 1970s.

Lynn Nesbit

John and Didion’s agent and friend. She comes to their apartment the night of John’s death.

Roxana Robinson

A writer acquaintance of Didion’s. Didion connects to a short story Robinson wrote about the loss of a child and briefly contemplates contacting her but decides not to for fear of being intrusive.

Calvin Trillin

An American writer and critic. He speaks at John’s funeral at St. John the Divine.

Susan Traylor

Quintana’s best friend from the age of three. She speaks at John’s funeral, participates in Quintana’s wedding, and visits UCLA during Quintana’s illness. She and her husband Jesse have known Quintana since the fourth grade.


A former associate of Didion’s from Vogue, whose abortion Didion fictionalized in her novel Play It As It Lays. X had her operation at Beth Israel, the hospital in New York where Quintana lies in a coma. Thinking of X leads Didion back to thoughts of Quintana, setting off the vortex effect.

John’s cardiologist

A specialist in Santa Monica. He is mentioned on two occasions: first, when Didion is trying to determine what will happen to John after he dies, and then again when Didion remembers his warning that John was a candidate for a “catastrophic cardiac event.”

The social worker

A counselor who greets Didion at New York Presbyterian Hospital, shortly after John’s heart attack. Didion first realizes that John is dead when the social worker greets her upon her arrival the hospital. He refers to Didion as a “pretty cool customer” when speaking to the doctor that officially delivers the news of John’s death.

The Man Behind the Wheel

A man who dies suddenly while stopped at a red light. John and Didion witnessed his death in New Orleans, and John remarked how strange it was that, as they were watching, the man went from being alive to dead almost instantly.