Joan Didion has written a very personal, powerful, and clear-eyed account of her husband's sudden and unexpected death as it occurred during the time their unconscious, hospitalized daughter was suffering from septic shock and pneumonia.

Quintana, the couple's 24-year-old adopted child, has been the object of their mutual care and worry. That John Gregory Dunne, husband and father, writer and sometime collaborator, should collapse from a massive, fatal coronary on the night before New Year's Eve at the small dinner table in their New York City apartment just after their visit with Quintana can be regarded as an unspeakable event, beyond ordinary understanding and expression. "Life changes fast . . . in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends" (3).

As overwhelming as these two separate catastrophes are, the account provided by Didion evokes extraordinary descriptions of the emotional and physical disorientations experienced by this very lucid, but simultaneously stunned and confused wife, mother, writer dealing with the shock of change. Her writing conveys universal grief and loss; she spins a sticky filament around the reader who cannot separate him or herself from the yearlong story of difficult, ongoing adjustment.


The quote Didion borrows from T. S. Eliot, "these fragments I have shored against my ruins," mimics the flow of scraps, bits, pieces, splinters of memory that come and go as she remembers and reconstructs the unending fragments darting, voluntarily, through her mind: her life, their life, medical phrases and terms, family events, disappointments, writing assignments, previous residences. The book discards "any fixed idea I had ever had 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" (7).

Most of us have great difficulty talking about the death of those close to us and the consequences of overwhelming loss. In effect, Didion begins to write her way out of the double nightmare by learning, remembering, and examining swirling currents that include the shared past, internet searches, scholarly writings, and conversations with friends and strangers.


This book won the 2005 National Book Award and has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Didion has agreed to transform the story into a theater piece that will be produced for Broadway.


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



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