Summary

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion is a fast-paced, thrilling story of a woman leaving her career behind to tend to her family. But it's unlike other similar stories. This woman, Elena McMahon, leaves a high-octane career as a journalist to care for her father after the passing of her mother and ends up getting wrapped up in her father's government arms-dealing job, drastically changing her life.

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After arriving to take care of her father, Elena substitutes for him on a run to take a planeload of weaponry to Costa Rica. It turns out to be an elaborate trap, however, as the Costa Ricans intend to capture her father and frame him for the assassination of the ambassador to the area, potentially sparking a violent conflict, and then kill him. With Elena in his place, they go along with their plan and try to frame her for the assassination of the ambassador. They go ahead and kill her father, Richard, and she realizes that her daughter may be in danger as well.

She temporarily evades capture and engages with Treat Morrison, a high-ranking politician. The two begin a short-lived romantic tryst, but when it is revealed that he is the politician to be assassinated, and she is still in grave danger, they break off their affair. In the end, they successfully escape and make their way separately back to the states without issue. Elena reunites with her daughter and separates from Morrison to allow him to go on with his life.

The story is written ten years after the events, as Elena explores her experiences and how they have shaped her life, including how she almost didn't want to make the story public because of the potential consequences. The story wraps up with a critique of the state of Central American governments in the 1980s, particularly of politicians who were underhanded and willing to take any steps necessary to get what they wanted.

Introduction

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548

The Last Thing He Wanted demands its readers’ attention, starting with its ambiguous title and continuing through its complexly zigzagging plot, narrated by someone who does not give her name but reveals enough about herself to suggest she is a fictionalized version of Didion, with an ear for jargon that lets her suggest the truth behind the pretense.

The time of the main events is the summer of 1984, a year that suggests a dystopian society comparable to but not identical with the one in George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The narrator, a journalist writing a story on the American diplomat Treat Morrison, eventually finds that this story involves her Los Angeles acquaintance Elena McMahon Janklow, whose daughter once attended a private school with the narrator’s daughter. Elena, upon leaving her rich husband and dropping his surname, moves to the East Coast, enrolls Catherine in a private school in Rhode Island, and takes a job reporting for The Washington Post. She is covering the California primary for the newspaper when she walks off her job, flies to Miami, and, finding her seventy-four-year-old father so confused that he cannot remember that Elena’s mother has died, substitutes for him in accompanying a clandestine planeload of land mines from south Florida to an airstrip in Costa Rica. This mission, the one Dick McMahon expects to bring the financial success that has eluded him, turns out to be a trap intended to lure the old man to a West Indian island where he will be tricked into appearing to assassinate the American ambassador stationed there and then be killed. The plot provides a pretext for a massive, open deployment of American forces on the island to deter communism in Caribbean and Latin American nations.

Awaiting the million dollars that never comes and submitting by near necessity to the manipulations of plotters who have stolen her passport and replaced it with one bearing the name “Elise Meyer,” Elena finds herself stranded on the island, where she learns from an old newspaper of her father’s death and, after hearing an offhand remark that a Salvadoran makes at an American embassy party, realizes her father was murdered and she herself is in danger, as even her daughter may be. The plot against her, however, does not work out as it was intended, because she does not go to the island airport as she was supposed to. Instead, she goes to a hotel, where she encounters Morrison, who has just arrived on the island and who is, according to the narrator, “the same person” that she is: “equally remote.” They begin a romance that ends violently, because he is now the American official to be assassinated, while Elena is still the person to be labeled the assassin. In fact, according to the narrator, the island police fatally wound Elena, but Morrison recovers from his gunshot wounds and lives another five years.

Apparently influenced by such events of the 1980’s as the politically motivated murders in El Salvador, the Iran-Contra affair, and the American invasion of Grenada, Didion presents in her novel a picture of a self-deluding man who finds brief happiness with a woman caught among sleazy operatives working for a government that, Didion implies, stoops to low means to reach its ends.

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Themes