The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15-22


Chapter 15 begins with Didion going to Boston on July 26, 2004 to cover the Democratic Convention, her attempt to get back into work and the normal way of things. Although there are few associations in Boston that would trigger her painful memories, Didion realizes that Quintana’s marriage was exactly a year ago, and this memory sends her into a spiral that forces her to leave the convention.

While in her room in the Parker House, Didion remembers that she was there once before in 1955. She remembers too certain memories with John from the last time she covered a Democratic Convention in 1992.

In chapter 16, Didion remembers a couple, Joe and Gertrude Black, whom she and John met in Indonesia in December 1980. The Blacks were a very close couple, and both Joan and John came to think of them as a model couple that they wanted to but could not become. Joan discovers notes that John had been writing the day of his death and wishes that the two of them had been together at the time.

In chapter 17, Didion writes about how grief is always so much more than we could have expected it to be. She thinks about her own reflections from younger days about meaninglessness and how she had tried to go through with the rituals of life and find meaning in them.

She wonders about how society disdains self-pity and likes to think of loss as possible without it. However, she realizes that since she was so used to speaking with John, his loss left her with many frustrated habits, which inevitably led to her withdrawing into herself and feeling self-pity. She knows that as a writer, she is able to conjure up voices, but she knows that neither she nor John was able to imagine life without the other.

In chapter 18, Didion mentions that she began writing her account in October 2004. In December 2004, she finally received the autopsy report and emergency room records she had requested. Although she realizes that it is irrational of her to think so, she tries looking through the different times and medical details to figure out at what point during the course of that night on December 30, 2003 that something could have been done to prevent John’s death.

In chapter 19, Didion reflects that she has trouble thinking of herself as a widow after John’s death and that this attitude is in fact continuous with how she felt as a wife before. Unable to completely fit the role, she kept improvising, including when she became a mother. This is what she and John had always done together.

Didion begins chapter 20 by telling the reader that at the time of her writing, almost a year has passed since John’s death. She has written a piece on the Democratic and Republican Conventions, her first without any input from John since 1963. She feels immense anxiety as a writer without him.

In chapter 21, Didion remembers a scene by Quintana’s hospital bedside with Gerry and John. She reassures Quintana that she is safe and that she, her mother, is there for her. Quintana is able to stay alive, but John is not.

Chapter 22, the final chapter, begins with a passage quoted from Didion’s own novel Democracy, in which a character describes geological features and earthquakes as signs of the world in constant, natural movement and change. Didion notes that it is now December 31, 2004, a year and a day since John’s death. She left a lei at St. John the Divine, the church where they were married. She realizes that “we try to keep them [the dead] alive in order to keep them with us” (225), but that eventually we have to let go of them in order to live on our own. She ends with the image of going along with the current of change.


Although for much of the book Didion treats her reflections and involuntary recollections of her life with John as problematic and painful repetitions that come as a result of her grief, there are some moments when her memory takes on a very different valence. Going over past events or things said, she comes to appreciate certain things she had not, such that even though John is already gone, her relationship within him seems to develop. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is Didion’s reflection on the trip to Paris with John that she would eventually take after some argument:

We were not having any fun, he had recently begun pointing out. I would take exception (didn’t we do this, didn’t we do that) but I had also know what he meant. He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living. (182)

The last two lines represent something of a voice of John from beyond the grave, or from the past, urging Didion towards life. Although the irony of a death and the depths of grief propelling one to think of forward-moving desire and a will to live reads here with painful nostalgia, it also kindles a feeling of hope.

Didion also writes, “I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star” (184). Here, she uses two metaphors for her grief to paint a picture of herself as the grieving writer mainly concerned with understanding and representation. However, John’s vigor for living that she had been in close contact with while he was alive actually makes this whole project of writing much more positive than Didion herself may let on.

As Didion writes in many places, one key aspect of John’s significance in her life was the running and regular dialogue she shared with him, which was of immense importance to her both as a writer and as a person (insofar as those two sides of her can be separated at all). Thus, one of the biggest blows his death deals her is the silence that cuts off that possibility for speech, which is very much how she has constituted and supported herself through the years. “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response” (194).

This reflection allows Didion to circle back to the issue of self-pity she had been considering now and then since the beginning of the book and provide something of a definitive explanation for its cause: “We are repeatedly left, in other words, with no further focus than ourselves, a source from which self-pity naturally flows” (195). Didion seems to imply here that in her life she has generally turned outwards to other people, such as by talking with John or writing for a public, in order to establish certain habits and a sense of rootedness in life. She is unused to being thrown back upon herself, to her solitary silence.

The effect of John’s death throwing her back is to make her grapple with the fundamental structures of self-control that undergird her personality, especially as a writer. Thus, she continues later on: “I am a writer: Imagining what someone would say or do comes to me as naturally as breathing. Yet on each occasion these please for his presence served only to reinforce my awareness of the final silence that separated us. Any answer he gave could exist only in my imagination, my edit” (196). This implies conversely that even though she could understand John’s personality and imagine things he would say while he was alive, there was an aspect of absolute difference in their dialogue, something that Didion perhaps took for granted due to their long intimacy and only realized after it was lost.