There was a time, about 25 years ago when I thought Joan Didion was the best essayist around. I thought she was a no-holds barred writer who was insightful and spot-on with her cultural commentary. At a certain point, in the mid-80’s, I had read each of her published books. I liked how her essays were often a composite, a layering of image upon image. Her sentences were lush, verdant, expansive in portraying a scene.
And then she would hit you.
With one sentence.
All the reader was left to do was to wonder, perhaps murmur “Wow!” as you found yourself agreeing with her, seeing her point, knowing she was right, even if it was contrary to all that you thought you believed in.
But maybe that was just because I was 25. Somewhere along the way, I stopped reading Didion. It wasn’t for any particular reason, or a dislike or shift in political persuasion. It wasn’t because I felt somewhat manipulated by Didion’s work, or found it dark, though both were true. She just fell off my reading radar for 20+ years. When she published The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005 about mourning the death of her husband of 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, I thought that I might read it, adding it to the never-ending ‘TBR’ list. But, it never bubbled to the top of that list, still floating around back in 2006. The other day at the library, making my way to the checkout desk with a stack of books in my arms, I spotted Didion’s latest work Blue Nights on the “New in Paperback” shelf. I quickly added it to my tottering stack.
I didn’t know much about Blue Night other than it was a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, which occurred not long after her husband’s passing. I had read somewhere (I cannot find the post — if it’s yours, let me know so I can credit you!) on a blog about how Didion’s memoir was whining, like a young child’s rant, and she just needed to grow up and accept things as they are. I didn’t think about this criticism, though, until I started to read the book.
This was never supposed to happen. As soon as I read this sentence, I thought of that blog post. It jarred me from the beautiful — and beautifully manipulative — prose of Didion’s work. This was never supposed to happen. Isn’t that what we all would think, at some point, when struck by numerous sharp blows to our families in a short period of time?
I both loved and hated this book. I loved how Didion takes the reader through multiple layers of time. You’re in the present, then you’re at Quintana’s wedding where a riff on stephanotis leads back to the house were Didion and her family lived when Quintana was in high school. Suddenly you’re in the story of Q’s birth and adoption or Didion and Dunne marveling at how beautiful a school-aged girl — their school-aged daughter — is as she walks down the hill to school. In this regard the book is lyrical. And then comes the Didion punch: the reader is back in the present with Didion in her grief, sympathizing with her that this was never supposed to happen.
In among the memories that haunt her, Didion ponders the aging process. She observes how others have had loved ones die — her niece, her dear friend Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter Natasha, a family friend — but these are always told from her point of view, how the death affected Didion, what Didion remembers, not how the death affected the immediate family. I find this odd. I find her discounting of what doctor’s tell her about her physical state and her rejection of the toll that age is taking on her (at age 77) to be equally alarming. And this is what I dislike about this book: its narcissism. This was never supposed to happen to me seems to be Didion’s theme. This self-centered, privileged attitude pervades this work.
I’ve lost a parent; I’ve experienced chronic illnesses in loved ones; I’m caring for elderly family members, watching them fight to not go gently into that good night as they struggle to hold on to memories fragmented into beautiful but unrecognizable kaleidoscopic images by plaque in their brains. But, I’ve never lost a child. I cannot empathize, only sympathize. Perhaps one never does truly “get over” it; I don’t think that I would want one to. I would not want to. I can realize, not being on the grieving side of the equation — that unbalanced, no explanation possible side — that we all wish that such things were never suppose to happen.
But they do happen. To all of us. We get old. Our children become adults and make decisions without us. Our bones deteriorate and our skin sags and we can’t wear high heels any longer without risking serious injury. It is suppose to happen. The best we can hope for is that we don’t outlive our children and that our memories, as frail and fragmented and selective as they might be, are enough.
Perhaps Didion is right: grieving is the “blue night” — that prolonged twilight of late summer where the sky remains a deep, deep blue before the final light fades — the warning of the darkening of the brightness in our lives.
This post is part of the Blogging A to Z Challenge. This is day 4, which is, of course, the letter D. Thanks for stopping by and reading. I’d love to know your thoughts on this book, or on grief in general. To read others participating in the A to Z Challenge, click on the graphic. You can find an index to my A to Z entries here.