Sunday Book Review Plus – Bonus Documentary Recap on Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking

Welcome to my Sunday Book Review with an added bonus. Today I’m going to review Joan Didion’s book – The Year of Magical Thinking. But before I share my book review, I’m going to share an overview of the 2017 Documentary currently on Netflix – Joan Didion – The Center Will Not Hold, where 86 year old, literary icon, Joan, reflects on her intimate stories from her writing career and struggles, and her forty year marriage to author John Gregory Dunne, brother to author Dominick Dunne. The documentary was directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne.


My 5 Star Review Documentary Review:


Joan Didion was born December 5, 1934 in Sacremento, California. She’s an American novelist and essayist and screenwriter. Joan is known for her incisive depictions of social unrest. Joan says she began writing at the age of five and was a shy ‘bookish’ girl. She never considered herself a real writer until her first published book. Joan struggled with social anxiety and took up acting and public speaking to help ease her anxieties. As a young teen, she spent much of her time typing out books by Ernest Hemingway so she could learn how sentence structure worked. Joan had a sordid childhood as her dad was in the army during WWII, with moving a lot she didn’t attend school regularly until returning back to Sacremento in 1944.


After watching the documentary and learning about the demises of both her husband and her daughter Quintana, my heart went out to Joan and I was compelled to read her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, because she wrote it after John’s death. It was first published in 2005. In the documentary, Joan’s publicist talks about how he urged Joan to write her novel published in 2012 – Blue Nights, for both, John and Quintana.


John and Joan met in New York City when Joan won a poetry contest at her senior year in Berkeley for her essay, Prix de Paris, and the prize landed her a job as research assistant at Vogue. John wrote for Time Magazine at the time.


They bounced ideas off one another, each wrote their own books and essays, but they collaborated on screenplays together – Needle Park (1971 with Al Pacino) and A Star is Born (1976 Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Joan’s logline for Needle Park – “Romeo and Juliette as junkies.


In this documentary, we get a deep inside look at this author from her beginnings as a journalist writing hard stories, Joan would say that she writes about disorder because she’d then find the situation”less scary”. She wasn’t happy with the way some of her books were portrayed for movies, such as, Book of Common Prayer, complaining her characters were totally different than what she’d written.


Joan admits that much of what she writes contained pieces of her. Her interests in writing were mostly about stories of humanity and the bad things going on in the world. Her visit to El Salvador prompted her to write political stories and essays, and an eventual book called El Salvador. She talks about the lie of the Central Park 7 – propaganda spurred falsely in the accusation of the rape of a jogger in Central Park, N.Y. and on VP Dick Cheney, “Bully of the Bush war,” “He took the lemons, made lemonade, spilled, and made someone else cleanup.”


John and Joan kept a low profile in the celeb world. They adopted their daughter Quintana at birth. When Quintana was asked what kind of mom Joan was, she replied, “Okay, mostly remote.” Joan began questioning how parents are sometimes on auto-pilot and don’t realize child neglect.


In 2003, Quintana took ill and was rushed to hospital when she went into septic shock resulting from pneumonia, which turned worse and ultimately left her in a coma at the time of John’s death. John and Joan had just come home from visiting Quintana in hospital on December 30, 2003, and they were sick with worry about their daughter. Joan made dinner, the two sat down to eat when John had a massive, fatal heart attack. Later, looking in her husband’s closet with a friend to pack up his clothes, Joan said, “What if he comes back?” That was clearly a grief statement because I could so identify with not wanting to let go. After she wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan said it was the hardest book to write, but had to write it to get through. I totally get that. She told herself that after writing the book she would learn to let go. This woman lost the love of her life while their daughter lay in a coma.


Months after Quintana’s recovery, she fell and hit her head, suffering a massive hematoma and resulting in six hours of brain surgery. As Quintana was recovering her major illnesses in 2004, she came down with Pancreatitis in 2005, and ultimately died from it in August 2005 at age 39. Didion wrote Blue Nights in 2011 for Quintana. That woman was broken.


Joan was/is a tiny woman, and after losing her family, her wonderful friends stepped up to take care of her and made sure she ate at her already weight of 75 pounds. Joan then wrote the play for the book The Year of Magical Thinking, which starred Vanessa Redgrave, in the nonfictional soliloquy.


Joan wrote Blue Nights after the play, about Quintana – a book she said she didn’t want to write. On her life when asked if she had regrets about things, she said, “The failure to plan for misfortune,” her guilt of failing as a mother.


In 2005 Didion won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and became a finalist for National Book Critics Circle Award.  She won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, The Magical Year of Thinking. In 2015, President Obama awarded Joan with the Mastery of Style in Writing Award for exploring the culture around us and exposing the depths of sorrow and for her ‘startling honesty’.



Poignant Quotes:


“Everyone has moved on except the one left grieving.”


“See enough and write it down.”


“A journal – a forgotten account paid with interest.”


“Remember what it is to be me, that’s always the point.”





I recently finished reading Joan’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking. After seeing the documentary and having only read one other of Joan’s books, I felt compelled to read.







NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER • NATIONAL BESTSELLER • From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion that explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage—and a life, in good times and bad—that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.


Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill with what seemed at first flu, then pneumonia, then complete septic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later—the night before New Year’s Eve—the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John Gregory Dunne suffered a massive and fatal coronary. In a second, this close, symbiotic partnership of forty years was over. Four weeks later, their daughter pulled through. Two months after that, arriving at LAX, she collapsed and underwent six hours of brain surgery at UCLA Medical Center to relieve a massive hematoma.


This powerful book is Didion’ s attempt to make sense of the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness … about marriage and children and memory … about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.”



My 5 Star Review:


An accounting of love and loss. In this often, heartwrenching book, Joan Didion champions her once simple writing life alone, without her husband, best friend and consultant on all her writing. Joan reminisces on her life and writing with her husband John, always with her – writing, walking, traveling, filming – they did everything together, despite them both being individual writers, with the exception of a few collaborations.


Joan takes us through her life in vignettes as she shares memories of incidence on vacations the family took together, the circles of people they traveled with, their routines, when they adopted Quintana, motherhood, and mistakes. But most poignantly, Joan focuses on the time of John’s death, the surreal moments, the most insignificant things becoming big things, the most minutest details overlooked while she was living numb are being realized in this story. She begins her story with the the eve her and John went to visit Quintana in hospital, while she was in an induced coma. They were both worried sick about their daughter. Joan makes dinner, they sit down to eat and John has a fatal heart attack right in front of her on December 30, 2003. Her details are precise. She talks about her different kinds of grief, comparing the variation in grief between losing her parents, to how different her grief felt when John died. Joan shares what it was like waking up the next morning alone. She’ll take you right into her realizations. So identifiable for anyone who has ever deeply loved and lost. I know much of what Joan speaks, like not even remembering if we ate or not, mostly not. It’s a numbness that takes over to break the impact of the shock.


Joan bares herself with raw honesty on what grief leaves on someone, the stages of steps involved until reaching acceptance, but I wonder how many ever get there. Joan shares how she came to decisions about giving her loved one’s clothes away, as Joan in her denial stage held hope he may come back. Joan discusses her concern of having to break the news to Quintana about her father’s death, after she awakes from a long coma. Joan shares her fears about her daughter getting sick again overshadowing her grief – “Until now, I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened, Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention.”


Imagine trying to stay sane!


Joan Didion is an iconic writer. As a journalist, she followed stories of humanity, out in the field. She said it was easier to deal with war if she could see it. She’s a tiny frail woman who can barely move her hands now at age 86, but that doesn’t stop her from still using them to articulate what she speaks. She’s lived through hell and back TWICE, first losing the love of her life, then her daughter. I can only imagine the amount of courage it took to write about such pain. It’s not surprising this Warrior Woman has won so many awards. I was drawn to this book after watching a documentary about her, The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix after my own husband’s passing, and I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who have loved and lost.



Poignant Quotes that resonate:


“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.”


“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”


“I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death.”


“Marriage is memory, marriage is time.”


“For forty years I saw myself through John’s eyes. I did not age. This year for the first time since I was twenty-nine I saw myself through the eyes of others.”


“I have trouble thinking of myself as a widow. I remember hesitating the first time I had to check that box on the ‘marital status’ part of a form.”


“I realized that for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.”


“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.”


“I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.”





43 thoughts on “Sunday Book Review Plus – Bonus Documentary Recap on Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking

  1. Hi Debby – this is a heartfelt review and you have certainly made me realise this is a book I need to read – which I will definitely do at some stage … as too other books of hers. A really powerful post – in so many ways … I will be thinking of your words and the impact the book will have on the world. Thank you – just the right day to post this – our Remembrance Day. With thoughts for peace and care in this world – Hilary


  2. Thanks for introducing Joan to me, Debby. I didn’t recognise her name. How terrible. But I did recognise some of her works. I was fascinated by what you wrote about her. The Netflix trailer is compelling, as is your review. I’m adding it to my list. She is right about life. It does change fast. I’m not sure about planning for misfortune though. Perhaps I need to read the book to give futher consideration to that thought.


    1. Hi Norah. I knew Joan is iconic. I’m happy to introduce you to some of her work. The documentary goes through snippets of her life, encompassing her losses as well. The book doesn’t expand on her daughter’s final tragedy, as she was still alive at the time of the book writing. ❤


  3. Debby, a profound and detailed review – as raw as the emotions felt by Joan I imagine and you give a great feel for the book, its tragedies and her strength as she lives on in spite of all the pain. I not only want to read the book but also to watch the remarkable lady on the Netflix documentary. Thank you so much for sharing. x


    1. Thank you Annika. I am happy to have piqued your curiosity. There is much to take in from both the doc and the book. I hope you get the chance to read and watch. ❤


  4. An engaging review to say the least. Anytime someone writes so openly and honestly about tragic events in their lives, I think most readers are going to be all in. Books written from the heart, especially when the writing is crisp, make for the best reads. Thanks so much for your moving review, Debby.


  5. Your excellent review reminded me of Joan Didion’s magical prose. I probably gave my copy of The Year of Magical Thinking away when we moved, but I remember the poignant first page: fixing a salad for an ordinary supper and then sudden death.

    I would give this book (and your review) 5 stars. Like you, I make notes of quotes that resonate when I read a well-written book. Brava!


  6. A heartfelt review and what a life, Joan and John led. To write with searing honesty is a gift. You have this gift, my UB. I will start with the documentary of Joan and thank you for bringing her to my attention. Much love flowing to you always. ❤ xxx ❤ ❤


  7. It’s been awhile since I read this book. I’ve always loved Joan Didion and your review of her book, The year of Magical Thinking brought me back to her. I will definitly watch the Netflix doc. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Debby. Also I love the poignant quotes that resonate in your post! ❤


  8. My take away from this is: Life changes. Sometimes in a heartbeat. Sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad.

    This also tells me there is life after death to those left behind.

    Thanks for the detailed review.


      1. My mistake. I didn’t make my point clear. While I truly believe there is life after my death, this review reveals their is life for the person left behind after the death of a loved one.


  9. Hi Debby, this sounds like a very emotional read. The thought of losing a child is so overwhelmingly dreadful to me, I just can’t even think it. I never think about death as I just can’t bear the though of losing anyone.


    1. Hi Robbie. Good for you, don’t think about death, it isn’t pleasant. The book was written a year before she lost her daughter, so that isn’t in this book. ❤


  10. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about the documentary as well as Joan’s book. So much heartbreak, Debby. Even reading about it gets me choked up. I wasn’t familiar with this author or her work and I’m looking forward to learning more. Beautiful revew.


  11. Wow. Just, wow, Debby. Joan has had a long life going through so much. And such accomplishments as well. I might have to check out that documentary on Netflix. Thanks for the double review!


  12. Very poignant review, Deb. I also appreciate your highlighting her quotes that have resonated with you. Grief and mourning being two separate things—ground breaking. I can imagine you found much comfort in her words. I am definitely going to watch the documentary. I will also be adding some of her books to my TBR.


  13. Wow! Debby, your reviews alone and the documentary video brought tears to my eyes. Who can imagine what she has endured! To lose her husband so unexpectedly and instantly is incomprehensbile. Then to read that her daugher recovered only to die from pancreatis. So tragic. I had pancreatitis several years ago from a gallstone that got stuck in my bile duct. I don’t wish the pain on anyone. But I remember my doctor asking me, “Do you realize how sick you were?” I didn’t at the time. Also, when our daughter was diagnosed with a rare disease years ago that many have died from, it was beyond daunting. She was 20 years old and had to console her parents. So, I totally agree with Robbie’s words about losing a child. By the way, she is doing fine. One day at a time is my motto for anything and everything in life. I apologize for the essay. 🙂 This moving and powerful post stirred my emotions and memories. Sending hugs. xo


    1. Hi Lauren. I’m so glad to hear my reviews moved you, and sorry to hear about your own experience and your daughter’s. All I will say is thank goodness you survived and your daughter has overcome also. Scary thing this thing called life sometimes. ❤


  14. I’ve not actually read any of Joan Didion’s writing nor saw the documentary. On the other hand, I have read a number of references, including excerpts of her work as part of writing classes. None of those offered the details of suffering. Of course, I’ve had my own instances of that so I can identify with hers–qualitatively different in when those events occurred in her relationships. Great review. Who knows, maybe this IS someone that I should read.


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