The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-14


Didion begins chapter 11 in June 2004 after Quintana has left UCLA for the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Medical Center, thinking about how her memories, just as her daughter’s, have become blurred. She thinks back to April, when she tried her best to maintain a sense of control while Quintana faces various dangerous symptoms, such as by trying to take an active role in the medical proceedings and reading up on medical literature. On April 29, Quintana is transferred to Rusk.

In chapter 12, Didion spends the spring and summer months following Quintana’s admittance to Rusk reading through unopened mail. She comes across a volume titled Lives of ’54 about the Princeton class John graduated in. She thinks about what he has and has not told her about his past. She thinks about the transition from life to death, either as no difference or a sharp divide. She reads through two of John’s books, True Confessions and Harp, and wonders about parts she had not sufficiently appreciated while he was still alive. In 1987, John had an angioplasty in his heart that nearly claimed his life.

In chapter 13, Didion talks about how she would share all her dreams with John and how difficult it was for her to no longer have him to speak with. Some of her dreams seem to represent this feeling of abandonment and being left behind by him after his death. The couple never exchanged many letters because they were never apart for long; if separated by long distances, they would take flights to see each other. Joan tears up remembering a time when John praised her writing.

In chapter 14, Didion talks about how during the summer she began to feel fragile and unstable, unable to function normally and present herself to society; for example, to a young writer who wanted to write a profile on her. She reflects that though she used to think that she was lucky, the possibilities of many dangers belied this sense of luck; she wonders whether misfortunes are meant to balance out, and what it would mean for them to balance out. She wonders how thinking about this can help her come to grips with John’s death and Quintana’s illness.


In a way taking apart her own explanation of the role literature played in her life as a means to understand and hold power over the things that happen in her life, Didion writes at the end of chapter 11 about “letting go.” She reads a crucial sentence in the final proof of one of John’s novels that he was not able to finish due to his death and spots a sentence she would have written differently because of what seems to her to be a grammatical mistake. In the end, she makes the emotional decision to relinquish this sense of control, which is especially significant since in this case it has to do with her husband who is lost to her: “Why do you always have to be right. Why do you always have to have the last word. For once in your life just let it go” (141).

While Quintana is being flown from UCLA to New York, one of the paramedics thinks he sees the Grand Canyon, but Didion identifies what they are flying over as Lake Mead. This prompts a remembrance from John that forces her to question herself: “Why do you always have to be right, I remembered John saying. It was a complaint, a charge, part of a fight. He never understood that in my own mind I was never right” (138). This contradiction can be resolved with two more pieces of memory that Didion gives us. One is a note she discovers from an old friend that read “You were wrong” and which she burned (138). The other is the juxtaposition of John’s complaint with two other phrases: “Why do you always have to be right. Why do you always have to have the last word. For once in your life just let it go” (141). It is much more so that Didion is trying, by speaking her mind, to claim a certain “rightness” over the situation, though she never feels like she is able to complete this and thus has to keep speaking. The most difficult thing for her is not so much thinking about being right or wrong but relinquishing the question entirely. “Being right” was never an objective, static state, but a subjective, dynamic process that Didion felt the need to continually engage in. This process supported her as a writer and worked well when she was able to speak with John, but the silence after his death makes her realize that she needs to have much more release in order to have stability on her own.

Didion writes, “I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day” (159). However, after John died, she finds that “Since I can no longer pass them off to John I find myself thinking about them [my dreams]” (159). She uses a passage from a novel she herself had written to think about the ways in which one can be blind to the meaning of one’s own dreams and realizes that this is what she herself is experiencing. “We all know that. The point is that Elena [the character] didn’t” (162). What Didion effects by pointing out this dramatic irony with her character is, as in so many other cases, a distancing of herself from herself so that she can better understand and thus gain control over her grief. In this case, she has used her own literary structure and the distance of a narrator (and the reader) from a character’s experience to give herself a certain breathing room within the claustrophobia and lack of control in her own life.