We gave it an A
On Christmas Day 2003, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, the only child of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, was hospitalized with a flu that rapidly degenerated into pneumonia, septic shock, and coma. Five days later, after returning from a visit to the still-unconscious Quintana, Dunne and Didion sat down to dinner in their Manhattan apartment. As Didion mixed the salad, Dunne, who was 71, suffered a fatal heart attack. ”John was talking,” Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, her spare and searing memoir. ”Then he wasn’t.”
As an author, Didion has always kept both her material and her readers at arm’s length, hiding behind her trademark oversize sunglasses and an immaculately honed, sometimes maddeningly oblique prose style — which she describes here as ”an increasingly impenetrable polish.” But staggering loss has made Didion emotionally generous; she has never been more forthcoming or affecting than she is here, offering grief-drenched flashbacks to a vital and contentious 40-year marriage. She writes with excruciating clarity of the ”vortex” of memory that awaited her outside the theater where she and Dunne saw The Graduate in 1967; of her difficulty visiting a Rite Aid on a street where they used to dine; of her ”magical thinking” that if she kept her husband’s shoes, he would one day return to fill them.
Of course, Didion is and always will be a ”cool customer” (as one hospital social worker put it), a woman no more capable of histrionics than of composing a slovenly sentence. Indeed, the raw feeling she funnels into her taut sentences has all the more power because it is so tightly rationed. But she acknowledges, for once, that language, however brilliant and precise, cannot contain, control, or make perfect sense of the chaos of personal experience. As if to underline that point, while Didion works through ”waves” of grief for Dunne, Quintana’s condition remains rocky. She comes out of her coma and is able to speak at Dunne’s funeral in March 2004, then collapses two days later with cerebral bleeding. The book concludes with Quintana’s tenuous recovery from her second medical crisis. But the devastating, unwritten coda to this bleak memoir is that on Aug. 26, 2005, months after Didion finished writing, Quintana, too, died.