The Year of Magical Thinking

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The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion The Year of Magical Thinking 2005.jpg
First edition
Author Joan Didion
CountryUnited States
Genre Memoir
Published2005 Alfred A. Knopf
Media typePrint (hardcover & paperback)
ISBN 1-4000-4314-X
OCLC 58563131
813/.54 B 22
LC Class PS3554.I33 Z63 2005

The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), by Joan Didion (1934–2021), is an account of the year following the death of the author's husband John Gregory Dunne (1932–2003). Published by Knopf in October 2005, The Year of Magical Thinking was immediately acclaimed as a classic book about mourning. It won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction [1] and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award [2] and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. [3]


Structure and themes

The book recounts Didion's experiences of grief after Dunne's 2003 death. Days before his death, their daughter Quintana Roo Dunne Michael was hospitalized in New York with pneumonia which developed into septic shock; she was still unconscious when her father died. During 2004 Quintana was again hospitalized after she fell and hit her head disembarking from a plane at LAX. She had returned to Malibu, her childhood home, after learning of her father's death.

The book follows Didion's reliving and reanalysis of her husband's death throughout the year following it, in addition to caring for Quintana. With each replay of the event, the focus on certain emotional and physical aspects of the experience shifts. Didion also incorporates medical and psychological research on grief and illness into the book.

The title of the book refers to magical thinking in the anthropological sense, thinking that if a person hopes for something enough or performs the right actions then an unavoidable event can be averted. Didion reports many instances of her own magical thinking, particularly the story in which she cannot give away Dunne's shoes, as he would need them when he returned. [4] The experience of insanity or derangement that is part of grief is a major theme, about which Didion was unable to find a great deal of existing literature. [5]

Didion applies the reportorial detachment for which she is known to her own experience of grieving; there are few expressions of raw emotion. Through observation and analysis of changes in her own behavior and abilities, she indirectly expresses the toll her grief is taking. She is haunted by questions about the medical details of her husband's death, the possibility that he sensed it in advance, and how she might have made his remaining time more meaningful. Fleeting memories of events and persistent snippets of past conversations with John take on a new significance. Her daughter's continuing health problems and hospitalizations further compound and interrupt the natural course of grief.

Writing process

Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking between October 4 and December 31, 2004, completing it a year and a day after Dunne died. [6] Notes she made during Quintana's hospitalizations became part of the book. [7] Quintana Roo Dunne Michael died of pancreatitis on August 26, 2005, before the book's publication, but Didion did not revise the manuscript. [8] Instead she devoted a second book, Blue Nights , to her daughter's death. [9]


The New York Times Book Review praised the memoir as "not a downer. On the contrary. Though the material is literally terrible, the writing is exhilarating and what unfolds resembles an adventure narrative." [10] The New York Review of Books declared, "I can't imagine dying without this book." [11] The American Prospect's mixed review found that the book read "like a Warren Report on the death of LBJ." [12] In 2019, the book was ranked 40th on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. [13]

The play

On March 29, 2007, Didion's adaptation of her book for Broadway, directed by David Hare, opened with Vanessa Redgrave as the sole cast member. The play expands upon the memoir by dealing with Quintana's death. It ran for 24 weeks at the Booth Theatre in New York City and the following year Redgrave reprised her role to largely positive reviews at London's National Theatre. [14] This production was set to tour the world, including Salzburg, Athens, Dublin Theatre Festival, Bath and Cheltenham. [15] The play was also performed in the Sydney Theatre Company's 2008 season, starring Robyn Nevin and directed by Cate Blanchett. [16]

Also in 2008, it was performed in Barcelona at the Sala Beckett, directed by Òscar Molina and starring Marta Angelat. The play was performed in Canada at the Belfry Theatre in 2009 and at the Tarragon Theatre by Seana McKenna. [17] This production was also mounted in January 2011 as part of English Theatre's season at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

On October 26, 2009 Redgrave reprised her performance again in a benefit production of the play at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. [14]

In January 2010, the play was mounted at the Court Theater in Chicago, starring Mary Beth Fisher. Fisher won the 2010 "Jeff" (Joseph Jefferson equity) Solo Performance Award for her performance.

The play was mounted in April 2011 by Nimbus Theater in Minneapolis, MN, starring Barbra Berlovitz and directed by Liz Neerland. [18] [19] In 2011, Fanny Ardant played a French translation of The Year of Magical Thinking in Théâtre de l'Atelier, Paris.

The play opened in May 2015, at Teatro Español y Naves del Español in Madrid (Spain), produced by Teatro Guindalera. Starring Jeannine Mestre, directed by Juan Pastor Millet. The Norwegian translation of the play premiered in September 2015 at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen, directed by Jon Ketil Johnsen and starring Rhine Skaanes. [20] On November 3, 2017, Stageworks Theatre in Tampa, Florida, opened a production of the play featuring Vickie Daignault. Writing in the Tampa Bay Times, Colette Bancroft noted Daignault's "skill and subtlety" and the exploration of grief in Didion's play that was "raw and refined at once." [21]

References and notes

  1. "National Book Awards – 2005". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-02-20. (With acceptance speech.)
  2. "All Past National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists". National Book Critics Circle. Archived from the original on 2007-02-20. Retrieved 2007-04-26.
  3. "The Pulitzer Prizes" . Retrieved 2007-05-31.
  4. Feeney, Mark (2005-10-26). "Amid unbearable sorrow, she shows her might". The Boston Globe . Retrieved 2008-06-09.
  5. Van Meter, Jonathan (2005-10-02). "When Everything Changes". New York Books . Retrieved 2008-06-09.
  6. O'Hagan, Sean (2006-08-20). "The years of writing magically". The Guardian . London. Retrieved 2008-06-09.
  7. Brockes, Emma (2005-12-16). "Q: How were you able to keep writing after the death of your husband? A: There was nothing else to do. I had to write my way out of it". The Guardian . London. Retrieved 2008-06-09.
  8. McKinley, Jesse (2005-08-29). "Joan Didion's New Book Faces Tragedy". The New York Times . Retrieved 2008-06-09.
  9. Banville, John (2011-11-03). "Joan Didion Mourns Her Daughter". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2023-01-20.
  10. Pinsky, Robert (2005-10-09). "'The Year of Magical Thinking': Goodbye to All That". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2023-01-20.
  11. Leonard, John. "The Black Album | John Leonard". ISSN   0028-7504 . Retrieved 2023-01-20.
  12. Hall, Linda (2005-10-24). "The Last Thing She Wanted". The American Prospect. Retrieved 2023-01-20.
  13. "The 100 best books of the 21st century". The Guardian. 21 September 2019. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  14. 1 2 "Redgrave to Recount The Year of Magical Thinking at St. John the Divine Oct. 26". Retrieved 2016-08-16.
  15. Robertson, Campbell (2006-05-26). "Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion, Working on a Merger". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-04-26.
  16. Hallett, Bryce (2007-09-08). "Theatre's dream team keeps Nevin in the act". The Sydney Morning Herald . Retrieved 2007-09-16.
  17. Video excerpt of Tarragon Theatre production of The Year of Magical Thinking
  18. Show description at - Retrieved 2011-05-04
  19. Royce, Graydon (2011-05-02). "A writer sifts the details of loss". Minneapolis Star Tribune . Archived from the original on 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2011-05-04.
  20. "DE MAGISKE TANKERS ÅR". Den Nationale Scene. Retrieved 12 March 2016.
  21. "Review: 'The Year of Magical Thinking' at Stageworks".

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