Jonathan Yardley

Quintana Roo Dunne, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion (1976)
Quintana Roo Dunne, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion (1976) (John Bryson / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 2, 2005


By Joan Didion

Knopf. 227 pp. $23.95

Out of excruciatingly painful personal experience, Joan Didion has written a lacerating yet peculiarly stirring book "about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad, about marriage and children and memory, about grief, about the ways in which people do and do not deal with the fact that life ends, about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself." In December 2003 two terrible things happened: her only child, Quintana, married months earlier, was hospitalized in a coma, and five days later her husband, John Gregory Dunne, died "in the living room of our apartment in New York [after] a sudden massive coronary event" just as he and Didion were about to have dinner. For more than a year, Didion's life was completely taken over by these events; The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of that year.

It is an intensely personal story that involves a relatively small cast of characters, but Didion's telling of it is clearly impelled in large measure by the events in New York of September 2001. The theme that persists throughout The Year of Magical Thinking is the seamless progression from the ordinary to the catastrophic: "You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. " She writes:

" . . . confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. . . . 'It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,' people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: 'Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.' "

It is true, to be sure, that John Gregory Dunne had sent warning signals about his health, just as it is true that prescient intelligence officers had issued warnings about clear threats of terrorism. Dunne, who was 71, "believed he was dying" and said so "repeatedly" to Didion, who dismissed it as depression arising from "the predictable limbo of a prolonged period between delivery and publication" of his forthcoming novel, Nothing Lost , and who thought that his cardiac difficulties had been solved by various procedures.

But, as "Episcopalians say at the graveside": In the midst of life we are in death. One moment Didion was mixing the salad and lighting the candles, the next moment her husband was "slumped motionless" in his chair. She called an ambulance; emergency technicians came speedily, tended to him and rushed him to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Meanwhile Quintana, who only days before had been a healthy, happy woman in her late thirties, lay "unconscious in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center's Singer Division" because "what had seemed a case of December flu sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock."

In a trice, Didion's world had been turned upside down, or inside out. Her beloved daughter, to whom she clearly was uncommonly close, was on the edge of death. Her beloved husband had fallen over that edge. She "needed to discuss this with John," because "there was nothing I did not discuss with John." Their marriage of nearly four decades was complicated (what marriage isn't?) but strong:

"Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other's voices.

"I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way 'competitive,' that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.

"That had been one more thing we discussed."

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