The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-10


Chapter 7 mostly recounts the progression of Quintana's illness beginning from January 15, 2004, when Didion goes to visit her at the hospital and is forced to tell her that her father has died. On January 22, Quintana is discharged from Beth Israel North. However, on January 25 she is admitted to Milstein Hospital at Columbia-Presbyterian due to a fever and chest pains.

She leaves on February 3 and attends her father's service with Joan on March 23. On March 25, she flies with her husband Gerry to California, and Didion imagines that they will be okay now. Unfortunately, she receives a phone call saying that Quintana has been sent to the emergency room.

Chapter 8 continues from where chapter 7 left off. After getting off the plane at Los Angeles, Quintana collapses on the tarmac with a brain hemorrhage that takes her to the UCLA Medical Center. Didion is told that one of Quintana's pupils is fixed. Later, she realizes the harrowing connection between this sign and brain death. She flies to Los Angeles with a friend.

In chapter 9, Didion reaches Quintana's bedside in Los Angeles and tries to reassure her that everything will be okay. At the same time, she realizes that as a mother she cannot take care and protect her child forever. She realizes that many of the people around her have good "management skills" (98) and are able to always feel in control of situations, which she is not. She talks to surgeons about Quintana's surgeries and chances at recovery, and reads medical textbooks and guides to learn about the illness her daughter faces.

In chapter 10, Didion describes a long "vortex effect" that she experiences while looking out of a window in the Beth Israel Hospital. She does so to try to take her mind off of Quintana's situation. However, she finds that her thoughts take her to far too many memories with John that prove to be very painful and linked to yet more memories.

From the past of Beth Israel Hospital, to a celebrity who had gotten an abortion there, to an article and novel she, Didion, had written about this incident, to various family memories, Didion finds herself unable to stop remembering. Los Angeles, where she had lived with John for many years, proves full of places and objects that conjure up memories against Didion's will.


Chapter 7 is probably the chapter with the most dates in the book. In the second sentence, Didion writes: “Let me try a chronology here” (83). This is an important phrase supported by the later times when Didion will repeat it, as one of her many mantras through the process of coming to grips with John’s death and Quintana’s illness. Although Didion herself does not go beyond calling this inclusion and foregrounding of dates of important events a chronology, we can infer several different genre precedents she could be drawing upon: the journalistic article, the diary entry, the hospital record, the word-processed draft. Indeed, these are all types of pieces that Didion refers to at various points, showing how not only literary and philosophical texts but even procedural documents provide much needed support for her to find a sense of way when grief has obliterated most of her bearings. The definiteness of the dates allows for a certain objectivity, a distance from her own confusing woes, that she especially values as a writer but feels that she may need to survive the grief.

Throughout chapter 8, Didion as a journalistic, nonfiction, and literary writer confronts the language used in medical practice and medical science, and finds in different circumstances helplessness and indignation. For example, she writes: “I remember trying and failing to understand the phrase ‘leave the table.’ Did they meant alive? Had they said ‘alive’ and Gerry could not say it?” (92) In this case, Didion is unable to take a certain phrase for granted, as the medical professionals do, because she realizes how much uncertainty or sense of danger is hidden behind the words. She demonstrates the same delicate attention to language also in recalling her own words: “We sat at the kitchen table and used phrases like ‘the contingencies,’ delicately, as if one of the three of us might not know what ‘the contingencies’ were. I remember calling Earl McGrath to see if I could use his house in Los Angeles. I remember using the words ‘if I need to,’ another delicate construction” (93). As readers listening to Didion recount her own experiences, we do not need her to quote her own words verbatim to believe her – she has the right to paraphrase herself. However, in doing so, she conveys both the specificity of her experience and, importantly, the sense of a personality that is concerned with holding onto these pieces of experience.

In chapter 9, she demonstrates a similar attention to language; now, not on the level of particular words and phrases, but in the interpretation of a story. She criticizes a certain “gilded-boy story” that is told to test patients with brain trauma: “What possible point could there be in telling this story to a patient immobilized in a neuro ICU at a major teaching hospital? What lesson could be drawn? Did they think that because it was a ‘story’ it could be told without consequence?” (106).

The coolness and distance with which Didion describes the “vortex effect,” which in itself is precisely her loss of the ability to control her own thoughts, works by a marked irony. “I had first noticed what I came to know as ‘the vortex effect’ in January, when I was watching the ice floes form on the East River from a window at Beth Israel North” (107), she writes at the beginning of chapter 10. At this point, the effect is already introduced with a name and from a future perspective from which Didion has some understanding. Similarly, Didion later on writes, “There it was, the vortex” (110), a moment which we can read either as a sudden realization during the time of being plunged back into memories or as a view from above, i.e., after the time, when Didion is able to trace back her train of thought and identify the particular point when it started to go too far away from normal reality. “See where that vortex sucked me,” (112) she writes later. The irony being that while she narrates with such control of the situation and the pace of the narration itself, the events she narrates are beyond her own control. She only admits this loss of control obliquely.