The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 20 | Summary



Didion is writing this chapter almost a year after Dunne's death. She assesses how she has changed. She recognizes she has less skill—or maybe less patience—with social interactions than she used to. She feels unable to have normal, casual conversations. She gets up too abruptly. Didion says she feels more fragile. She struggled to write a piece for publication because Dunne always edited her work. When she reread her work, she noticed many small mistakes. She wonders if she can ever trust her own abilities again. She begins to understand how things move on without her.

She tries to prepare for Christmas just as she always did, but with the awareness of how this year is different from previous years. She thinks of what she did a year ago at this time and how many days Dunne had left to live at that point. At her birthday a year ago, he had 25 days to live. On Christmas Day he had 120 hours left to live.


Collective wisdom suggests the first year after a death is the hardest. This makes a certain amount of sense. During the first year there are constant reminders and new things to experience without the loved one: a holiday or birthday or seasonal tradition. Thoughts of "this time last year we were ... " are also common. Didion may have chosen to write about her first year for this reason. As her year comes to a close, however, it is clear the one-year anniversary is not going to be the end of her grief. In fact, some psychologists suggest it can take two years or more to work through "complicated" grieving.

For Didion Dunne died at a particularly difficult time of year. December includes Didion's birthday and the anniversary of Quintana's hospitalization. Also, there is Christmas, which they celebrated in their own unique way, and their wedding anniversary, which would have been coming up in January. Now December also includes the anniversary of Dunne's death. This will not be an easy period for Didion. Although her language is as spare as always, the reader gets a sense of her struggle as she repeatedly compares this December to the last one. Dunne is constantly in her thoughts, as she shows with her countdown of how many weeks, days, or hours he had left to live.

Didion describes herself as struggling to engage in conversation. Keep in mind Didion is a classic introvert, while Dunne was an extrovert. Introvert and extrovert are terms that describe how people interact with others. An introvert like Didion is more likely to draw energy from being alone or with a small group of trusted people. Introverts may be less inclined to speak up in public settings and often have difficulty engaging in "small talk" or meaningless casual conversation in social settings. People who knew Didion and Dunne together suggest he often did the talking in social situations—he was the one who would answer the phone, for example—while she would do more listening. This introvert/extrovert dynamic worked very well for them when Dunne was alive, but after his death it leaves Didion with another challenge. Grieving people in general may be less comfortable with meaningless social interactions because they are caught up in their grief. Introverted grieving people will have an even harder time, as Didion describes.

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