The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Character Analysis


Joan Didion

Joan Didion became famous in the 1960s for her detached tone and lyrical style of writing. She started out as a journalist but published several popular books of essays and multiple novels. She also wrote screenplays with her writer husband, John Gregory Dunne. Didion often used her personal life as source material. In 2003, as their adopted daughter lay unconscious in the hospital, Didion's husband died of a heart attack. As she grieved for her husband, Didion also struggled to help her daughter through some life-threatening health crises. Didion wrote about her experiences in The Year of Magical Thinking, which explored "the power of grief to derange the mind."

John Gregory Dunne

John Gregory Dunne grew up on the East Coast of the United States. He attended Princeton and began working as a journalist in New York, where he met Joan Didion. They married in 1964 and spent most of their time together for the rest of their lives. Dunne wrote articles for periodicals, wrote novels, and cowrote screenplays with Didion. At first she was more successful than he was, but his novels grew in popularity in the 1970s. He was diagnosed with serious heart disease in 1987, but a procedure helped him return to health for a time. By 2003 his heart problems were getting worse. In December 2003, while their adopted daughter was hospitalized with her own health issues, Dunne had a massive heart attack and died. The Year of Magical Thinking describes Didion's grief for him. It also revisits key periods from their almost 40 years of marriage.


Quintana was adopted by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne at birth. As a child she often traveled with them when they did research for articles. In 2003 Quintana was in her late 30s, living in New York and recently married. In December 2003 a bad case of flu turned into pneumonia and septic shock and Quintana had to be hospitalized. She was in and out of the hospital for months, unconscious much of the time. When she was healthy enough, she participated in her father's memorial service (he died while she was unconscious), but a few days later she collapsed and had to undergo emergency brain surgery. Quintana's health plays a major role in Didion's life, particularly after the death of Didion's husband and Quintana's father. Although the end of the book suggests Quintana is recovering, she suffered additional health problems after the book was written and died at age 39 before the book was published.

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