Book Review: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion

Title: The Last Thing He Wanted

Author: Joan Didion

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Genre: Political thriller, Fiction

First Publication: 1996

Language: English

Major Characters: Elena McMahon, Treat Morrison, Richard McMahon

Setting Place: USA

Theme: Politics, Journalism


Book Summary: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion

The story centers around Elena McMahon, a reporter for the Washington Post who quits her job covering the 1984 United States presidential election to care for her father after her mother’s death.

In an unusual turn of events, she inherits his position as an arms dealer for the U.S. Government in Central America.

In this sparsely written, quick paced narrative, Elena struggles to cope with the spies, American military personnel, and the consequences of her father’s errors that are waiting for her on a small island off the coast of Costa Rica.


Book Review: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion

The Last Thing He Wanted is the first of Joan Didion novels I checked out, and it is a compelling read weaving fact and fiction in a way that sheds light on “counterintelligence”, essentially where the action is in politics certainly since 1960 and arguably since the end of WWII.

Didion’s story is about Elena McMahon, a woman who is never quite sure who she is as she transitions from reporter to Hollywood mogul wife to reporter again and then flees it all into a deep dirty politics plot from which she cannot escape. McMahon’s failing elderly father is an old bull of the American Counterintelligence glory days of the 50s and 60s, and she stands in for him on his last ‘score’, an arms deal in the middle of the covert Contra War of the mid 1980s.

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion is entertaining even if you are not interested in how the covert government works. But if like me, you are interested in how governments are changed without votes, how power really works beyond the drama of ‘democratic elections’, The Last Thing He Wanted is a fascinating look at how things might well work in the country.

Didion never wastes a word, and the weird twists and unspoken paranoia that flutters through these pages make this a first rate read. Joan Didion has a unique style of writing. While “The Last Thing He Wanted” is far from a conventional “thriller”, it’s smart, knowing and full of simmering intrigue, a novel that is as much a commentary on political moral compromise, as it is a story of a woman getting in over her head in the service of her father.

Buy Now: Books by Joan Didion

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