The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 15 | Summary



Didion is a journalist, and she had accepted an opportunity to cover the 2004 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. She saw it as a step back to her old life, as she had covered many conventions before. The conventions were several months after Dunne's death so she thought she would be fine. However, when she realized the first day of the Democratic convention was Quintana's one-year wedding anniversary, this set off the "vortex" of memories again. Didion had expected the convention, which was held in Boston, to be a safe place for her because she had few memories of spending time in Boston with Dunne. It didn't matter. In her hotel room, attempting to think of "safe" memories, she still found herself thinking about Dunne and Quintana. Thinking of "the most beautiful things" she had seen in her life, Didion realized: "I saw all those things with John." She wondered how she could ever travel anywhere without him.

Didion realized she had been wanting to "run the film backward," an idea she got from an article about noted scientist Dr. Stephen Hawking. Finally, eight months after Dunne's death, she understood: she had been trying to "substitute an alternate reel," but now she was trying to "recreate the collision, the collapse of the dead star."


The 2004 presidential election was between President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry. Didion had been doing political writing for many years, and the Bush-Kerry face-off raised questions about the 1960s and Vietnam, which would have been perfect for Didion's response. Bush did not fight in the Vietnam War. Kerry did, and when he returned from Vietnam he testified about some of the atrocities committed by American soldiers during the war. Since the Iraq War was in full swing in 2004, Kerry's Vietnam service and testimony were a big part of the campaign. No wonder Didion planned to attend the conventions: What better way to get back to "a normal life"?

Didion's reaction to the news item about Stephen Hawking is interesting. She often pulls in apparently unrelated facts or tidbits of news, connecting them thematically to the topic of her essay. Here Hawking's assertion about black holes helps Didion recognize her own shift from denial to acceptance. For the first time she thinks about moments she shared with Dunne without trying to change them into the "alternate reel." Now she accepts those moments and tries to understand them—to "recreate the collision." The final stage of grief is acceptance. Acceptance does not mean the grieving person feels good about the loss. It means the grieving person understands the loss will be part of his or her life. The grieving person is able to move forward with life. Didion has been trying to move forward, and now she may be able to do it.

This small moment really functions as the climax of The Year of Magical Thinking. This is the turning point for Didion. Up until now the central question of the book could be: Will Didion be able to manage after the death of her husband? From this point forward the question becomes: How does Didion move on after the death of her husband? She is still trying to understand what happened, she is still grieving, but she is no longer trying to "fix" the situation. She is moving on—not quickly, not easily, but she is adjusting.
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