No contemporary writer offers perspective like Joan Didion. Hand her an issue, a crisis, an era or event and she’ll return to present her findings in a clean, streamlined form, where context is given, significance named, understanding achieved and passed on. Didion’s innate sense of rhythm is unmatched, but in her new memoir Blue Nights, she wonders if her ability to serve as its conductor has been lost in the swirling blue depths of sorrow. “What if I can never again locate the words that work?” she writes.
Blue Nights is the sequel, if you will, to Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. During the course of the year of Magical Thinking, their daughter Quintana Roo went in and out of the hospital, suffering from a series of mysterious illnesses. By the time of the book’s release, their only child, the adopted baby with the “fierce dark hair,” was gone as well. Blue Nights is a grief poem dedicated to her, a mother’s keening that will break your heart.
In its sad wisdom, Magical Thinking offered consolation to anyone facing grief; it was intimate, but still, there was that sense of Didion as surveyor of situation. In Blue Nights Didion seems to have skinned herself; there is no trace of her trademark cool distance. She is frail, fearful of stepping out on the street. She questions her parenting, the nature of adoption (”one of those concepts that sounds more plausible than it is”) and paints a discreet but telling picture of Quintana’s various mental health problems, which were present long before her physical decline. Though most obviously a lament for Quintana Roo, the book also mourns friends and family who died too young as well as “that sense of the possible” that propels us all forward.
So why read it then, why suffer with her? Mostly to know what life looks like when everyone that matters the most is gone. Quintana was the troubled child who once cried out to her mother “Just let me be in the ground and go to sleep” but she was also the girl with the rosebud lips who constructed a happy ending for the stuffed bunny she’d accidentally left behind in Hawaii. “How could I not still need that child with me?” Didion writes. Her thoughts are as fractured in their way as her broken heart, but as they circle around, they have their own method of informing, their own form of final wisdoms.
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