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Didion remembers husband in ‘Magical’ book

John Gregory Dunne died of heart attack in 2003
/ Source: The Associated Press

Like the novels and essays that made her famous, Joan Didion is sad-eyed, even-voiced and pared to the bone, as if all excess had been burned off by her deep and doubting mind.

The author of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “Play It as It Lays” and other acclaimed books has always looked like someone for whom life was harder than expected, a weary soul endlessly under trial, but her burden has never been greater than over the past couple of years.

She need not leave home to be reminded.

The 70-year-old Didion sat for a recent interview in the same room where her husband and writing partner, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed and died in 2003 of a heart attack. Their daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized at the time with pneumonia and septic shock.

It is all recorded, indelibly, in her new and most personal work, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Famous for her dissections of cultural matters ranging from hippies and politics to the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, Didion has now assembled a narrative out of the chaos of her own grief.

“You know what was odd about the book?” she says during the interview, wearing a long, cream-colored blouse and purple slacks, leaning forward in a small, wicker-backed armchair. “I didn’t think of it as written ... until I saw the copy-edited version.”

Racing her own emotionsAt first, the story was untellable. For months, she wrote nothing. After agreeing to cover the 2004 Democratic National Convention, as an assignment for The New York Review of Books, she found herself in tears on the floor of Boston’s Fleet Center and fled in panic.

But once she could concentrate, she worked quickly. Her book about Dunne was a race against the deadline of her own emotions, she says. She finished it over the last three months of 2004, so as not lose a sense of “rawness.”

Her risk has apparently triumphed. Reviewers have been deeply moved, with The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani calling it “an utterly shattering book” and The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley praising its “surpassing clarity and honesty.” Within days of publication, Alfred A. Knopf reprinted “Magical Thinking” five times, for a total of 100,000 copies.

“On the first day it went on sale, it seemed like every third person who came into the store was buying her book,” says Toby Cox, owner of the Three Lives & Company bookstore in New York.

“The Year of Magical Thinking” begins with the death itself, a December night when Dunne was in a living room chair by the fire, drinking Scotch, while Didion was preparing dinner. The two were discussing Scotch, or World War I — Didion doesn’t remember — when he suddenly fell silent and slumped in his chair.

“At first I thought he was making a failed joke,” she writes. “I remember saying, ‘Don’t do that.”’

She writes of dialing an emergency number, and learning as she entered the hospital that she had been assigned a social worker, an omen of Dunne’s fate. Inside, she recalls asking if her husband has died, and hearing the social worker assure the doctor, “It’s OK. She’s a pretty cool customer.”

She not only endured grief, but researched it. She read medical works, poetry, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Mann. And her own grief taught her how little understood it was. “We have kind of evolved into a society where grieving is totally hidden. It doesn’t take place in our family. It takes place not at all,” she says.

She structured her story by giving it no structure. She wanted to show how the mind works in grief, and through grief. Obsessively, she circled back to that fatal moment, looking for signs, imagining a different ending, believing her husband could somehow return, a symptom of her “magical thinking.”

Literary couple grew and endured togetherDidion has lived in this apartment just off Madison Avenue since she and Dunne moved from California in the late 1980s. Her home is spacious, white-walled and rich in details: family photographs on shelves and walls; works of abstract art, in splotches and geometric patterns; a row of glass kerosene lamps in the living room window, holdovers from the days of blackouts in California.

Born in 1934 in Sacramento, Calif., she was fascinated by books and writing from an early age and was especially impressed by the prose of Ernest Hemingway, whose tense rhythms anticipated her own. She and Dunne met at a dinner party in the late 1950s, and were close friends before becoming romantically involved and marrying, in 1964. A baby girl, Quintana Roo, was born two years later.

Author couples are notoriously combustible, whether the drunken brawl of Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett or the infidelity and suicidal demons of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. But despite their own conflicts, Didion and Dunne grew and endured, never seeing each other as competitors.

“Whatever troubles we had were not derived from being writers. What was good for one was good for the other,” she says.

Collaborators on “A Star Is Born,” “Up Close and Personal” and other screenplays, Didion and Dunne were as one in the public’s mind, but their books were easy to tell apart. Dunne’s trademarks were the emotion and Irish fatalism of “True Confessions” and “Harp.” Didion was cooler, a voice of detached pessimism, treating accepted truths as so much drapery to be parted.

“They understood who they were individually and they understood who they were as a couple,” says author David Halberstam. “They were marvelously locked in together. For my wife and myself, among the most cherished times were the four-person dinners, because you got these extraordinary intellectuals who were enormously respectful of each other.”

Didion thinks of “The Year of Magical Thinking” as a testament of a specific time; tragically, the memoir has already dated. Daughter Quintana died last summer at age 39 of acute pancreatitis.

Didion has no plans to update her book and, though still grieving for Quintana, will tour throughout the fall.

But she has not decided what to write about next.

“I’ll think about it on the road,” she says.