On Books

The Year of Magical Thinking, a play by Joan Didion

332992The Year of Magical Thinking, a play is based on the American essayist Joan Didion‘s 2005 memoir of the same name. It is Didion’s account of her grief following the sudden death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, told directly to her audience in a ninety minute monologue.

John died of a heart attack at home, in the middle of a conversation. Theirs was a creative partnership. They edited each other’s work and collaborated on screenplays for movies including Play it as it Lays and A Star is Born.

Their only child, Quintana, was critically ill at the time of John’s death. Tragically, she never regained full health and died eighteen months later.

Didion’s grief which she names magical thinking, her wishing … no … expecting the return of her husband, her conviction that if she can just get control of the situation her daughter will make a full recovery is harrowing.

The memoir, which I read ten or more years ago, was an intense read. The play is more so. There is an immediacy to the writing in the play that is compelling. It is punctuated with occasional direct asides to the audience … warning notes if you like … about what to expect, in the likely event, life being what it is, that one day you too will struggle to accept the death of a loved one.

From an early age Didion rejected the notion of an interventionist God. She believes it incumbent on the individual to make for themselves a life that is happy and satisfying. But there is nothing quite like death to remind us we have only the illusion of control.  We live our lives based on assumptions. It’s how we make sense of the world. We get on a bus, we expect it to follow the planned route. We go to the supermarket, we expect there will be food on the shelves. We prepare a meal for our partner, we expect they will live to enjoy it. The magical thinking Didion describes is what happens when those core assumptions are disrupted. Forty years of expecting your husband to come in the door takes time to change. Didion found this profoundly disorienting. It took her to the edge of the abyss. Perhaps that is the nature of great loss.

Didion’s language has a clarity and a simplicity that is as compelling as the events that unfold. The Year of Magical Thinking, a play is not an easy read but it is a quick one. And it will leave most readers reflecting on their own experiences of grief. I haven’t read a play since those tedious days high school days when the syllabus squeezed all the vitality  out of Shakespeare. The Year of Magical Thinking, a play, is a satisfying return to the genre.

Christopher Frizelle reviews a performance of the play here.

Here is a review, from the London Review of Books, of the original memoir

You can view Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold, a documentary about Joan Didion’s career and personal life, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, on NetFlix, which the New Yorker reviewed here.

The Year of Magical Thinking — a play (2007) Joan Didion. Vintage

Opening line:
“This happened on December 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. That’s what I’m here to tell you.”



5 replies »

  1. Hi Jill, I am also glad I saw this. I have heard of The Year of Magical Thinking, but I didn’t know the story behind the title or what it was about. Thanks for sharing this. I can see how the play version would also be very powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m.so.glad.I read.this.Jill.. it sounds so compelling for me.to.read and perfect for a.patient who moved with her husband from Ireland to start a life in the states when they were in their 20s. They raised a family here, so far from their families of origin. He died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. She cared for him lovingly at home until it became unsafe for her, 6 weeks before his death. She is a writer and has struggled with her grief, never imagining that it would be this bad. Thank you.


    • I and many of my colleagues have found this book useful, Donna. Didion’s description of the impact of the loss of her husband and then her daughter is personal and particular to her situation. Yet, I think that urge to gain control, and the expectation that somehow she would be able to bring her husband back are very common experiences. It’s a harrowing and sad read.


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