Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion is an author I’ve long revered, whose books have had a titanic effect on me. But when Blue Nights came out in 2011, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. The memoir is a counterpart to Didion’s 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracks the aftermath of her husband John Gregory Dunne’s unexpected death in 2003. At the time of Dunne’s death, their daughter, Quintana Roo, was hospitalized, in a coma from a viral infection, and The Year of Magical Thinking is an account of the tragic events of that two-year period— the sudden loss of a husband of nearly forty years, the sudden, inexplicable illness of her only child. It’s written in Didion’s iconic cool style, known for its searing and intricate observations of everything from the levees of California’s Delta region to stark novelistic versions of Hollywood. In her memoirs (which include the 2003 Where I Was From) Didion has always written about herself with an unsparing eye, but in both Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, the grief is written of as if new territory, and the devastation is palpable, despite the trademark cool style.
The blue nights of the title is a term taken from the late summer phenomenon of protracted dusk, what the French call “l’heure bleue” and the English call “the gloaming.” “Blue nights,” Didion explains, “are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.” It’s the book’s unifying center. The “waning” of the author’s ability to write, of the life she’s lived, of the family she’s built her life around.
I dreaded reading Blue Nights because less than two years after Dunne’s death, Quintana Roo died at 39 from complications from a viral infection. My daughter, like Quintana, was adopted as an infant. What changed? In that period of six years, the early years of my mothering experience were suddenly behind me. With my daughter now a preteen, I’d begun to assess what kind of mother I’d been—of an infant, then a toddler, a precocious child. Just as Didion describes in Blue Nights, I too experienced wonderment at the lovely child who seemed by chance and luck to become my daughter. That, in part, is what Blue Nights is about, the luck and chance of a child, but as a memoir, its an impressionist work, one in which Didion continually burnishes certain memories—Quintana’s birth, adoption, her infancy, her childhood, her marriage—returning to images and phrases again and again to—to what?
“In theory mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”
The memoir is as much about the loss of Quintana as Didion’s sense of her own fading—the fear and uncertainty that come with aging. We read the writer’s sense of increasing frailty, and the recognition by others of her apparent diminishment. Didion uses it all, and renders what it means to be a mother, to lose a child, and to live without that child. Throughout the account, Didion’s revisiting of memories have a purpose. It’s the fear of forgetting, of living so long you lose all that remains. As bleak as that message is, I was grateful Didion wrote this book, as difficult as it was to read.