Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking: A Story of Grief and Compassion

Authored by Elizabeth Hodges

This is an autographed poster advertising the 2007 play The Year of Magical Thinking starring Vanessa Redgrave. The autographers include Vanessa Redgrave, director David Hare, and Joan Didion (Autographed poster of The Year of Magical Thinking 2007).

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity” (Didion 2007a, 3). In December of 2003, Quintana Roo Dunne, daughter of writers Joan Didion and John Dunne, fell into septic shock after contracting pneumonia. On December 31, 2003, after visiting their daughter in New York’s Beth Israel North Hospital, Didion and Dunne sat down to dinner (Didion 2007a, 6-7). Shortly after they began eating, Dunne suffered from a major heart attack and died. Dunne’s death marked the beginning of a year that would change Joan Didion’s life. After a number of traumatic hospitalizations in 2004, Quintana developed acute pancreatitis and died August 26, 2005 (Meter 2005).

Didion published her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in 2005 as her account of a year experiencing loss and heartbreak, but she also explores how people experience grief on a larger scale. Didion’s studies on grief and mourning brought her to individuals such as Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein as well as novels, memoirs, and self-help books (Didion 2007, 34-48).

The concept of “magical thinking” is derived from anthropology and is loosely defined as the belief that ideas, thoughts, and actions can influence or even change the world around an individual to prevent catastrophe (McCrum 2016; Vandenberg 2019).

Didion’s year of “magical thinking” centers around trying to comprehend and reclaim control of events around her that are completely out of her control. Pinsky (2005) explains this in a review of The Year of Magical Thinking stating, “That internal voice, “magical thinking” denying its own desperation, whispers that the funeral ritual will restore what is lost. It says that reading the obituary would be a betrayal.”

            Didion’s memoir was well received by critics after publication, and in 2007 Didion adapted the book for Broadway (McCrum 2016). Quintana’s death occurred before The Year of Magical Thinking was published, so the play expands on the book to include her death. The play, staring Vanessa Redgrave and directed by David Hare, is designed to be a one woman show. Brantley (2007) he calls attention to the opening scene where Didion believed that Dunne was “making a joke” when he became suddenly silent following his heart attack (Didion 2007b, 3), specifically Redgrave’s performance:

Ms. Redgrave’s expression conveys two levels of consciousness: She is in the moment she has just described, irritated with what she perceives to be an ill-timed joke. And she is in the present tense — still angry with herself and the grotesque cosmic prank she has participated in — because her husband wasn’t joking at all.

(Brantley 2007).

Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking emphasizes the everywoman aspect of grief that is so intrinsically human, but in more recent year’s grief and mourning have been pushed into the shadows to be suffered in isolation (Didion 2007, 59-61). By calling attention to mourning and loss, Didion’s work mirrors the Vincentian ideology “to foster a world view and to further efforts toward global harmony and development by creating an atmosphere in which all may imbibe and embody the spirit of compassionate concern for others so characteristic of Vincent” (St. John’s University 2020). Love, death, and grief are major themes of Didion’s work, but compassion—especially for those experiencing loss—is the largest underlying theme of her work.


Autographed poster of The Year of Magical Thinking. 2007. Maureen Anderman Papers. Thomas J. Shanahan Library, Marymount Manhattan College.

Brantley, Ben. 2007. “The Sound of One Heart Breaking.” New York Times, March 30, 2007.

Didion, Joan. 2007a. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage Books.

——. 2007b. The Year of Magical Thinking: The Play. New York: Vintage Books.

Meter, Jonathan Van. 2005. “Joan Didion on Losing Husband John Dunne and Daughter Quintana Roo.” New York Magazine, September 29, 2005.

McCrum, Robert. 2016.“The 100 Best Nonfiction Books: No 2 – The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005).” Guardian (US edition), February 8, 2016.

Pinsky, Robert. 2005. “’The Year of Magical Thinking’: Goodbye to All That.” New York Times, October 9, 2005.

Robertson, Campbell. 2006. “Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion, Working on a Merger.” New York Times, May 26, 2006.

St. John’s University. 2020. “Our Mission.” facts/our-mission.

Vandenberg, Brian. 2019. “Magical Thinking.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Last modified October 9, 2019.

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