The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide." Course Hero. 18 Jan. 2018. Web. 10 Aug. 2020. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2018, January 18). The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2018)



Course Hero. "The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide." January 18, 2018. Accessed August 10, 2020.


Course Hero, "The Year of Magical Thinking Study Guide," January 18, 2018, accessed August 10, 2020,

The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 1 | Summary



Joan Didion begins the book reflecting on how quickly life can change. The first lines are "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant." She says these are the first words she wrote "after it happened," and "for a long time" she "wrote nothing else." She does not specify what "it" was.

She cites how often people begin a story of tragedy with a statement about how ordinary the day was: for example, the morning of September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center attacks happened. She gives the date on which she is writing (October 4, 2004) and baldly states the facts: her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died on December 30, 2003. It happened at the same time their only child, Quintana, was hospitalized with a severe case of pneumonia and septic shock. Dunne's death was the result of a "sudden massive coronary event." The book is Didion's attempt to understand what happened by writing about the event and her reaction to it. She emphasizes the importance of words and writing: "The way I write is who I am." However, in this case she wishes she had a video-editing machine to show different takes and angles on what happened.


Joan Didion is the main character of this book, a woman going through intense grief and stress. She is also the author, a very gifted writer who is adept at drawing a reader into a story. The opening phrases serve two purposes: they express Didion's struggle to comprehend what happened, and they also immediately connect with the reader. The emphasis on the ordinary—"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends"—tells the reader, "This could happen to you." A few pages pass before Didion states her personal tragedy. She fills those pages with other examples of loss: September 11th and Pearl Harbor (where thousands died in a sneak attack that launched the United States into World War II). When she finally describes her own loss, the reader understands that for Didion, this was Pearl Harbor and September 11th all at the same time. The combination of her husband's death and her daughter's serious illness is more than anyone should have to bear.

The writing and telling of stories is a central theme of this book. Didion and Dunne were both well-respected authors with many publications to their names. Words were their business and a bond they shared together. In one of her earlier books, The White Album, Didion writes, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." In this book she says writing is how she makes sense of events, how she understands herself. At the end of the chapter, though, she says, "This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning." Words fail her. They cannot fully express what she's been through.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about The Year of Magical Thinking? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!

Stuck? We have tutors online 24/7 who can help you get unstuck.
A+ icon
Ask Expert Tutors You can ask You can ask You can ask (will expire )
Answers in as fast as 15 minutes