The World According to Joan Didion by Evelyn McDonnell review – bits and pieces of a literary pioneer

In November 2022, when items from the estate of the American writer Joan Didion were sold at a charity auction in Hudson, New York, most made 10 times their estimate. Twenty-three linen napkins embroidered with Didion’s initials went for $14,000. Thirteen (blank) notebooks went for $11,000. A pair of faux tortoiseshell Céline sunglasses – in 2015, at the age of 80, Didion famously became the unsmiling new face of the French fashion house – were sold for $27,000. The most expensive lot was a portrait of Didion painted, not by one of the famous artists whose work hung on the walls of her Upper East Side apartment, but by a complete stranger, from an author photograph. It reached a price of $110,000.

In her new book about Didion, Evelyn McDonnell turns her nose up at all this consumption: such a “display of materialistic idolatry was hard to watch, even for a Didion fan”, she writes, caught between admiration for the superstar writer’s discernment (oh, those Le Creuset pans) and distaste for her relative wealth (when Didion’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, tells McDonnell her client’s “basic” dresses cost a few hundred dollars, she’s distinctly sneery). Unfortunately, by this point, her attitude sounds a bit hollow, or it did to my ears. Is she, after all, really any better herself? You can’t help but notice that McDonnell’s book bears something of a resemblance to an auction catalogue, its author’s desultory, magpie approach to Didion slowly but surely reducing the author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and many other classics of American journalism to a collection of disconnected bits and pieces.

Personally, I can’t say whether the pressing of flowers and the writing of thank you letters tell us too much about a human heart

The World According to Joan Didion is not a biography, though some of the facts are here: the childhood in Sacramento, the student years at Berkeley, the marriage to the writer John Gregory Dunne and their adoption as a baby of their daughter, Quintana Roo. Its narrative is thematic rather than chronological, and as a result, highly selective and partial. Each chapter – they cannot be called essays – has a one-word title: Gold is about California and Didion’s pioneer roots (she could trace her family out west back several generations); Hotel is about Honolulu, where she favoured the Royal Hawaiian (the Didion-Dunnes often worked on the Hollywood screenplays they wrote together earlier in their careers in hotel rooms); Orchid is about her liking for pressed flowers and plants generally. A piecemeal, glossy magazine approach, it just about works when McDonnell is writing of Corvette Stingrays (Didion owned a yellow one), snakes (of which she had a morbid fear), or even of Didion’s relationship with Robert Silvers, the famously picky editor of the New York Review of Books (this is the most interesting chapter by far). But when she must deal with the deaths of Didion’s husband in 2003, and of their daughter, at the age of just 39, in 2005, it becomes extremely uncomfortable and ill-fitting. Unbelievably, she calls this chapter: Morgue.

McDonnell, whose previous books were about rock music, is the kind of fangirl who’s always trying to find things she and her subject have in common. (What a shame that “we both lived in New York” is about the best she can do.) On the page, her style combines a certain breathlessness with a rather grim tendency to wink conspiratorially at a reader, whose assumptions she anticipates: “White people problems, I know,” she notes of the difficult gates at one of Didion’s houses. The problem is – and in this, she’s the opposite of her idol – that she so desperately wants the reader to like her, and it makes her wilfully stupid. Did she really have to look up the “English chintzes [and] the chinoiserie toile” Didion favoured in her sitting room? Or is it just that she would rather appear dim than a snob? Even as she wants to be close to Didion, she must keep clear blue water between them. Some people, after all, consider Didion to have been a libertarian and even an “imperialist”.

All this is bad enough. But none of it exasperated me half so much as the way McDonnell objectifies and sexually stereotypes Didion, sins she’d doubtless decry were they committed by a male writer. The Didion of the 1960s and 70s “was more a tunicked goddess than a sexy go-go-girl”, she writes, bizarrely. She analyses her weight, asks if her diet was restricted (inevitably, she mentions Didion’s infamous breakfast of cold Coke and almonds) and speculates about her inability to have children. No, those relatives and friends she interviewed for her book were never told why Didion and Dunne had to adopt. But no matter, McDonnell has her own thoughts: “I believe that she had a health issue dating back to her early sexually active life,” she says (she offers, incidentally, no evidence of this life).

And then there’s – oh no – motherhood. “Was Joan a good mother?” she wonders. “It’s the question you probably want to ask me.” (No, I don’t, but never mind.) McDonnell is right to point out that no one ever asks whether Dunne was a good father. But the thought doesn’t stop her, later on in the book, from embarking on an anxious search for proof of Didion’s warmer side. (Why does she need to have had one?) Personally, I can’t say whether the pressing of flowers and the writing of thank you letters tell us too much about a human heart; while both are very nice, they hardly betoken deep heat. What I do know, though, is that this book does Didion, a very fine writer indeed, a disservice, and it makes me worry for publishing that someone, somewhere, either didn’t notice this or didn’t worry about it enough to say, in the voice of Robert Silvers: “Please, try again.”

• The World According to Joan Didion by Evelyn McDonnell is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply