The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 14 | Summary



Didion began feeling fragile, as if she was trying to hold herself together. She became aware of every possible danger, even improbable ones like a bookshelf dropping its books on her. At a checkup at the doctor's office she burst into tears. Fortunately the doctor was a family friend who understood. She said she couldn't "see the upside" of the situation, which struck the doctor as funny. Didion realizes she had always seen herself as an optimistic and "lucky" person, although she admits she did not see either Dunne or Quintana as "unlucky."

She remembers something Dunne told Quintana years earlier, after her cousin Dominique Dunne was murdered: "It all evens out in the end." Didion thinks of how she interpreted the statement to mean people who suffered through bad times would eventually experience good times, but Dunne insisted he didn't mean that at all. Talking it over with Quintana's friend Susan Traylor, Didion was surprised to realize he meant everyone would eventually experience loss. Didion partially held herself responsible for Dunne's death and Quintana's suffering. She also held Dunne and Quintana responsible, on some level, which is equally illogical but somehow psychologically understandable.


Though Didion and Dunne made their marriage work for almost 40 years, in this book she often recounts their misunderstandings and disagreements. Those misunderstandings haunt Didion, as she questions how well she listened to Dunne over the years. She thinks of her misinterpretation of Dunne's words of comfort to Quintana, years earlier.

Dominique Dunne, daughter of John's brother Nick Dunne, was a young actress best known for her role in the movie Poltergeist. She was strangled by her abusive boyfriend, and after several days on life support she died. This led Quintana to say she had dealt with more death and loss than most people at her school. Didion interpreted Dunne's comment to her, "It all evens out in the end," to mean everyone will get both good and bad news throughout their lives. In fact, Dunne meant everyone would get bad news sooner or later—something Didion did not want to face.

Didion explores the idea of luck in this chapter. She certainly could be called "lucky"—a spectacular career, a remarkable marriage, a beautiful daughter, plenty of money. "Luck," however, suggests she had no control over it: it just happened to her. Didion worked hard for her career and, no doubt, worked hard to maintain her marriage over 40 years. They were on the brink of divorce at least once, but they came to be seen as one of the most remarkable literary marriages of the 20th century. Such a marriage doesn't happen by "luck." Relying on luck makes you powerless—you can't control the outcome. Didion surely feels powerless. She couldn't save Dunne, couldn't protect Quintana. In a sense thinking of "lucky" and "unlucky" is another way of experiencing self-pity.

Her style is always detached, so it is perhaps unsurprising Didion never directly expresses anger over what has happened to her family. Anger is a normal part of the grieving process, but it is definitely not part of being a "cool customer," as Didion tries to be. This chapter includes a very oblique mention of something related to anger. Though Didion uses the word responsible, it sounds much more like blame: "I was holding John and Quintana responsible," which, she says, didn't help her get anywhere. In fact, anger at the dead person is a common reaction, though an uncomfortable one. No one really wants to admit they blame their dead spouse for dying. Didion has struggled with denial and magical thinking, but she is clear about one thing: blaming Dunne or Quintana for her grief won't help anyone. She concludes the chapter by telling herself to "just let it go," something Dunne used to tell her.

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