The Year of Magical Thinking | Study Guide

Joan Didion

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The Year of Magical Thinking | Summary

See Plot Diagram


Introductory Material

Joan Didion begins by talking about people's reactions to tragedy. Her tragedy was the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003, as they sat down to dinner. They had just returned from the hospital, where their only daughter, Quintana, was in a coma because of pneumonia and septic shock.

Didion writes the book to make sense of her own reactions during the grieving process. She acknowledges early on she is not always rational, which inspires the title, The Year of Magical Thinking. She describes how grief made it difficult for her to accept her husband was never coming back, although she knew it was impossible for him to return.


Didion recounts the events of the year after Dunne's death. In the midst of her grief, she was also still worried about Quintana, who was hospitalized for over a month. When Quintana was released from the hospital, she had to be readmitted only a few days later. Dunne's memorial service was postponed until March so she could participate. A couple of days after the service, Quintana and her husband flew to Southern California. Once they arrived, Quintana collapsed and underwent emergency brain surgery. Didion flew to California to be with her and eventually helped Quintana travel back to New York for rehabilitation therapy.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Throughout the book Didion reflects on her marriage to Dunne. She wonders whether he knew he was going to die. As she thinks about their past together, she reveals Dunne had been diagnosed with heart problems in the late 1980s. A medical procedure done in 1987 had been successful and delayed the inevitable. Didion recognizes she had put this out of her mind, but Dunne never did. Her appreciation for her remarkable relationship with her husband only deepens as she faces life without him. Over the course of the year, Didion eventually accepts her husband's death, though it is clear she will never stop grieving him.

The Year of Magical Thinking Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Dunne dies.

Rising Action

2 Dunne's funeral is held.

3 Quintana collapses and is hospitalized in Los Angeles.

4 Quintana comes back to New York.


5 After trying to get back to work, Didion accepts Dunne's death.

Falling Action

6 Didion hosts Christmas Eve dinner without Dunne.


7 Didion faces the first day after her year of magical thinking.

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