Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s 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 style, known for its cool and intricate observations of everything from the levees of California’s Delta region to stark novelistic tales of real-life Hollywood (where Didion and Dunne were also screenwriters). 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 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? Six years later, 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 it’s an impressionist memoir. Didion keeps burnishing memories—Quintana’s birth, adoption, her infancy, her childhood, her marriage—returning to images and phrases again and again:
“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 also looks at Didion’s sense of her own fading—the uncertainty of 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 as one grows old. In this account, Didion’s revisiting of memories have a purpose. It’s the fear of forgetting, of living so long you lose all you have. As bleak as that message is, I was grateful Didion wrote this book, difficult as it was to read.