The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking Themes

Control and Management

One could think of the entire book as an attempt to come to terms with and therefore have some control over a tragic event that would otherwise throw one’s life into chaos. Although Didion distinguishes herself from friends who seem eminently capable of maintaining a sort of managerial clarity in every aspect of their life, she certainly has her own ways of trying to remain on top of things. She realizes this as she thinks about how John would ask her, “Why do you always have to be right?” Didion is not so much one to try to out-argue people or to find a solution that would completely resolve a problem; rather, she tends to explore a problem from all angles and to continue to think of it through a dialogue. Precisely for this reason, John’s death and the absolute cessation of their dialogue, and in a way any opportunity to speak about him, presents her with the unique problem of finding a way to speak when she feels thrown back into a self-pitying self.


The book is filled with many memories, which often come up at unexpected times and are generally filled with specific details, such as dates, places, names of people, and quoted conversations. Although it certainly ties into Didion’s habit - since she began writing in her childhood - of approaching and understanding the world through writing and self-reflection. In the case of her grief over her husband’s death, she finds that the processes of her memory tend to take over the steering wheel and make her feel that she is losing control of herself. Thus, she will sometimes try to cut a particular anecdote from memory short or at least to plug in a recognition of what is happening and how it may be unreasonable or unduly painful. At one point Didion refers to this as being “sideswiped,” and later she formulates it as a “vortex effect,” a term she uses frequently afterwards to refer to particular compulsive chains of memories that seem to suck her into her past and out of the present moment.

Modes of Knowledge

In trying to come to terms with John’s death and Quintana’s illness, Didion reads through many different kinds of literature. At one point, she distinguishes them into three categories: literary works, practical self-help books, and professional medical literature. The first and the third, in different ways and at different times, provide her with perspectives she had not considered before and perspectives which accord with and thereby support or clarify her own. As a writer, she does not only mention these different things she reads but also engages with them by weaving quotes, both short and long, into her own narrative and by reflecting upon them. Especially in the case of the different stages of Quintana’s illness and stays in hospitals, Didion is forced to familiarize herself with a great deal of arcane medical knowledge in order to be able to feel that she has a hand in her daughter’s recovery and so that she can have more hope in her recovery.

Relationship with John

Through the book, we learn as much about Didion’s relationship with John while he was still alive as about the way that Didion copes with his absence. In the beginning, Didion is much more concerned with the immediate effects her grief has on herself, but gradually she comes to realize that these can only be understood in relation to her relationship with John. Towards the end of the book, she arrives at an answer to one of her most pressing questions: “The question of self-pity.” She had found that she would almost involuntarily call up and dwell upon nostalgic memories and find her present condition miserable as a result. It is not until she thinks specifically of how integral a habit of hers was to share and talk things over with John almost every day that she realizes this habit has been suddenly frustrated and she has been turned inwards into herself. One particular irony that this leads to is the fact that she is writing the present book without any of John’s editorial input. Of course, the very point of the book assumes John’s absence, and in that sense is like an impossible book for her to write or imagine writing, given that she had not written anything without John’s review since the 1960s.

Grief versus Normal Life

One of the things that astounds Didion so much about John’s sudden death and Quintana’s sudden illness is the way that they erupted through what was otherwise a very normal and prosperous family life they shared. As symbolized by the hearth fire and dinner that Didion prepares just before John’s death, such a sense of security and confidence in the continuation of life were things that Didion took for granted. Retroactively, she was surprised they did not somehow prevent what happened. In a similar way, Didion tries to act as normal and in control of herself as possible even in the very moments after John’s collapse; she can only wonder what an “uncool customer” would do, but she never wants to allow herself to fall out of the norm. However, this tension between the extreme abnormality of her situation and the normality that she and others demand of her leads her, even some time after John’s death, to feel distanced from the things going on around her, incapable of socializing and unable to work. In this way, the writing of the book and the taking on of jobs such as to cover the Democratic and Republican conventions gives her an opportunity to bridge the two worlds of grief and normality.

Questioning and Reflection

Many of Didion’s accounts of memories of John involve her asking questions about what he may have wanted to say, what he had realized at the time, and even what sort of unconscious premonitions he may have had. A great deal of these questions are by their very nature unanswerable, such as whether John had sensed the imminence of his death, and Didion herself realizes this. The value of her thinking of it is perhaps more to link her memories of a past with a living John to her present with his absence than to actually attempt to establish a single storyline from those seemingly foreshadowing moments, such as when John gets an angiogram, through the death itself. This sort of questioning also opens her up to a conversation with John beyond the running conversation they actually had; in a sense, it is a conversation only made possible by John’s death. In the wake of the tragedy, Didion rereads things John has written and finds meanings behind the stories and unexpected connections that she had not noticed before.

Keeping Time

A notable feature of all the memories and anecdotes of the book is the precision with which Didion dates them. From the very first page, we are given the date on a Word document and the date that Didion remembers she actually started writing. Though certainly the exact date of John’s death (December 30, 2003) is the most important, given that it is the central event of the whole book, it is not immediately clear why the reader should be concerned about incidental dates, such as those concerning the time of Didion’s writing. One possible observation is that these dates and their precise tracking of timelines, such as the night of John’s death and Quintana’s illness, function as a sort of diary. This in turn raises the question of the importance of the temporality of an exact chronology to a grieving widow or a mother of a sick child. In reading through John’s emergency room reports, Didion says that she is specifically trying to find the moment when he died, so that she can consider when his death might still have been prevented – a thought that contradicts her attempts to look for foreshadowings of John’s death. In this way, the dates may not have so much an unequivocal meaning; rather, they may serve as indices around which Didion can set up the various contradictory way of approaching her memories.