The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Chapter 22 | Summary



It is one year and one day after Dunne's death, December 31, 2004. Didion briefly mentions the tsunami that had just occurred in Indonesia on December 26, 2004. She seems fascinated by the event. She describes how she celebrated Christmas Eve with many people but spent Christmas Day alone. A friend from Hawaii sent leis for her and Quintana to wear on Christmas Eve, which they did. Later, Didion left her lei near where Dunne's ashes are kept.

She admits she doesn't want to stop writing the book, and she didn't want to end the first year. She is aware of how time will soften her pain, make Dunne more "mudgy" in her memory. And this has happened already: December 31, 2004, is over a year past his death. She no longer can think of what Dunne was doing a year ago today. "We try to keep the dead alive ... to keep them with us," she writes. She acknowledges the living have to keep living and allow the dead to rest. She remembers swimming in a cave with Dunne near their California house—something they were able to do only a few times. They had to time it just right, and Didion always hesitated. Dunne never did: "You had to go with the change. He told me that."


Didion admits a certain fascination with large-scale disasters, but the tsunami works as a symbol in this final chapter. It works as a reference point, too, grounding the reader in the reality of what was happening in the world as Didion grieved. More poignantly, it recalls the infamous "in lieu of filing for divorce" essay eventually published in The White Album. The essay begins with Didion, Dunne, and Quintana sitting inside a Hawaiian hotel room, waiting to see if a tsunami will hit the Hawaiian beaches after an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands. The tsunami does not hit, forcing Didion back to considering her marriage: "In the absence of a natural disaster we are left again to our own uneasy devices." In the essay they decide to keep on trying with the marriage, and readers of The Year of Magical Thinking know the result. Didion does not bring up this moment when she mentions the 2004 tsunami, but it would be hard to believe it is not in her mind.

Didion knows she is entering a new phase of her grief: "My memory of this day a year ago ... does not involve John." She is past the first year of mourning, the year of magical thinking for which the book is named. "The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place," she reports. She feels no resolution, no closure. Maybe she never will.

She ends the book with an image she has referred to many times: water. Here, it is the swell of water as it went into the sea cave near their beachside California home. Didion recalls how Dunne tried to teach her to ride the ocean swell, relaxing and letting it move her. She struggled to do so, but he didn't. Although she never claims to receive messages from Dunne after his death, his words to her then clearly serve as a guide for her going forward. All she can do is "go with the change," live her life, and see what happens. This image, this small tribute to Dunne, seems utterly fitting for the end of the book.

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