The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 19 | Summary



Didion says she has a hard time thinking of herself as a widow, but she also had a hard time thinking of herself as a wife. She remembers arguing with Dunne early in their marriage because she was convinced he wanted "a different kind of wife," someone more like his brother Nick's wife at the time, Lenny Dunne. He insisted he did not. Didion describes various phases when she tried to fit an image of a wife by dressing or acting a certain way. She reflects on how she and Dunne were "improvising" what it meant to be married, what it meant to be adults. Didion describes their "planning meetings," where they attempted to solve problems but often gave up and went out to lunch instead. She wonders how they managed and how it all worked for 40 years. She wonders why she thought "this improvisation could never end" and what she might have done differently if she had understood it would end. Didion wonders if Dunne would have done anything differently.


Although Didion grew famous writing about 1960s hippies, she and Dunne were actually too old for much of the counterculture movement of that era. Didion was born in 1934 and she and Dunne married in 1964. In the early 1960s many women didn't bother to go to college, or if they did, they gave up any career aspirations after getting married. Didion describes her sister-in-law Lenny as someone who "had lunch with friends and ran her house effortlessly and wore beautiful French dresses." In the early 1960s Lenny's description would fit many upper-middle-class women around the country, but Didion would not have been one of them. She says, "I had no idea how to be a wife." The phrase may ring strangely in a modern reader's ear. Today there is hardly a unified idea about "how to be a wife" (or husband), but it was clearly a concern to young newlywed Didion.

She describes a very haphazard life with Dunne: "planning meetings" where nothing got planned and financial decisions made without much thought for long-term implications. She quotes something Dunne wrote about their wedding: "We promised we could get out ... not wait until death did us part." Whatever they promised, they stayed together for decades. Were they "lucky," as Didion suggested earlier? It may be that an older, frailer Didion perceives the earlier days of their marriage as more unstable than they really were. It seems unclear to her whether they would have done anything differently at all.

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