Blue Nights is more like a poem than a memoir. Joan Didion writes about her daughter Quintana Roo, motherhood, loss, and aging in that succinct prose of hers that works like embroidery stitches—precise, practiced, selected with the impact of the finished piece in mind. She describes a sad journey to a dark place by editing out far more than she reveals and circling back to evocative fragments over and over.
Quintana died less than two years after the sudden death of Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, but she was already gravely ill when he died. She was 39 years old and succumbed to a septic infection that no medical intervention was able to cure, after repeated relapses, induced comas, emergency room visits and hospitalizations in intensive care units. A Year of Magical Thinking chronicles the cardiac arrest that claimed Dunne in their Manhattan apartment after a hospital visit to see Quintana, while Didion was preparing dinner in the kitchen. By the time the hugely popular best seller came out, Quintana, too, was gone and Didion could find no magic to sustain her through her losses.
The book’s title refers to a few weeks around the summer solstice when the evening light just before sunset turns a luminous blue. Didion says this doesn’t happen in southern California, where Quintana Roo was adopted and where she spent her childhood. But the blue light is observable in New York, where the family moved decades ago and where Quintana died. The blue is the same as the spent rods in nuclear reactors or stained glass in a cathedral, Didion notes, and I grant her poetic license because I have been in the spent fuel chambers of a nuclear reactor and seen the eerily beautiful blue light wavering up through the pools of water but I have never seen an evening or a sky like that in the city, or in Central Park.
It is a gentle metaphor, though, for all the sorrow in this slim reflection and there are other colors that pierce Didion’s prose and return again and again to haunt her: the peach-colored cake from Payard at Quintana’s wedding reception when the whole family was alive and together and unaware of what loomed ahead; the iridescent blue and green peacocks on the lawn of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; the red soles of Quintana’s Christian Louboutin satin shoes visible as she knelt at the altar; the white stephanotis she wove into her braid under her bridal veil. Months later, by the end of that year, Dunne was dead and Quintana was in the first of several comas.
There are other colors and bits and pieces of life picked up, examined, put down and then picked up again. Didion writes of the fear that is born with a child and how it never leaves you—the overwhelming need to make sure she is safe, the worry in advance about all the things that might go wrong, the late-night panic about how wrong you are, how unsuited to the task of shepherding this miraculous creature through childhood and into a fairytale life.
No fairytales, after all, in Blue Nights. Quintana goes to the right schools, travels with mom and dad on movie shoots and publicity tours, is articulate, bright and precocious as you might expect from a child with two successful writers for parents. And Quintana suffers from her own demons, years of therapy for inconclusive diagnoses—manic depression, alcohol abuse, OCD, suicidal ideation, borderline personality disorder. Didion searches her own soul for the blame. Was Quintana insecure because she was adopted? Were her parents too busy with their careers to give her enough attention? Was the child forced to grow up too quickly in a household of sharp minds and quick wits, an adult world? Maybe, as much as the fear, the impulse to self-blame comes with the territory of motherhood. Who is a perfect parent? Who is even a good-enough parent? These are unanswerable questions.
How do we survive after our children? Didion asks. What matters after everyone you loved is lost? What to do with the colors and the memories? How to grow old and frail alone, consigned to the waiting rooms of doctors and the apartment stuffed with mementos that can never bring back the husband, the daughter? It doesn’t seem fair. It isn’t fair—it just is. Didion stares at the bleak years and edits every meticulous word. She misses Quintana. “How could I not still need that child with me?” she asks. Blue Nights is Joan Didion’s poem about the ebb of a life. It is heartbreakingly sad.
Blue Nights Joan Didion | Alfred A. Knopf 2011