Blue Nights, Joan Didion

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.

Or two.

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.


11 responses to “Blue Nights, Joan Didion

  1. That wasn’t my post, for I gave this book 3.5 out of 4 Ripples. To counter those who think she’s narcissistic, I can only say, well, it didn’t happen to you… It happened to her, and that was her innermost feeling. I can’t be sure how I would react, or that I wouldn’t ask the questions she’d asked, if something so tragic happened to me, two-third of my family wiped out within 20 months of each other. In case you’re interested, here’s my review of Blue Nights. BTW, I’ve enjoyed your previous posts, the photography is just amazing. Thanks for sharing them with us.

    • Thanks, Arti. See my comment to Sigrun re: it’s the descriptions of her life before their deaths, not her reactions to their deaths that struck me. But, I agree: it didn’t happen to me, so I can only sympathize, not empathize. I don’t think that it is possible to truly, completely, understand, but memoir should help us to understand somewhat better than we might without having read. It just seemed to me that she focused so much on what a perfect world they had, that I couldn’t relate. I didn’t get the connections when she would point out something about her daughter and than ask if she should have known then. “Well, of course not! The two are unrelated.” is all I could think of in response.

      • Arti, I just read your review — a good writeup. Thanks for the link and a different perspective. I guess where we differ is that I don’t see that anything is a lightening of relief, a sharing of burdens. Didion even despairs — and disparages — Quintana’s telling her to let go of things. I don’t think that one ever lets go of a loved one, even after their death. As Didion writes in the closing pages, Q is always there, and always what she needs. But, only having memories is what rages.

        Reading your review will make me think about my view of this book, though I’m not sure that I’ll change me mind. To be honest, I felt harsh and judgmental in not liking the book, as if I were being coldhearted. I would never tell someone grieving that they need to “get over it”, nor do I believe in that cliche about time healing all wounds; yet, I don’t think that rage is the healthy approach five years after. How long is it OK? Hell if I know. There are still times when I miss my father, dead 17 years, that I ache. For years, I couldn’t drive through a particular intersection without thinking about him. Did it take me too long to do so without crying? I don’t know. I’d say that it was the right amount of time for me, because it was my time, my grief. I guess with this book I wanted to feel more for Didion and such tragic loss, but the book didn’t leave me feeling that way, only that it was about Didion and not her daughter.

    • Thanks for the compliment on the photogs. 🙂 See below for thoughts on the book.

  2. I must admit I really loved this book! I have never read any Didion before, but this book made me want to read all of her work. And you know what – I actually appreciate her self-centeredness, it feels honest & true, its like making a selfportrait without putting make-up on. Rough & real …

    • Sigrun, it has made me want to go back and reread some of her writing that I haven’t read in 25 years to see if I think of it now. I understand — and appreciate — the rough & real qualities to this book. But, I can’t help but feel that it is very narcissistic. Perhaps I would be too. Perhaps it is too easy to criticize when not in her position. It isn’t the mourning, it isn’t the loneliness, it isn’t the woes of aging that stop me cold in this book. It is the memories telling of how charmed their lives were, how privileged, a privilege that Didion says is unfair to accuse her of, that she is just like everybody else. (As if by saying that she refuses to accept that designation, it is not true.) But in talking about it, it makes it seem as if she doesn’t think that she is just like everybody else. I guess I’ve grown to a place where whenever someone says “Why me?”, whether in good circumstances or bad, I want to say “Why NOT you?” And conversely, when someone cites only themselves and their individual efforts for something happening, I wonder “Why you and not someone else?”. I think that there is much that is out of our control and some things we just need to let go. Because there is so much that is because of chance. So much that we have absolutely no control over. Didion confesses to being a control freak. I confess to being one too. I know I’m happier when I let go of that need to control, but it is so dang hard to do. And so, my love/hate reaction to this book: I recognize and refrain from recognizing, attract and repulse the ideas and emotions, at the same time.

      • What a great conversation you have started!
        I believe i might read the story fom a slightly different perspective (maybe since I don’t know Didion at all?)
        1) i do not belive they ever led a perfect life, small episodes from Q’s childhood tell us so
        2) i think the losses gives D a new kind of self- knowledge. She is not who she believed herself to be (and her family, especially Q, might have known all the time)

  3. I hear you. A lot of memoirists veer into the narcissistic, and it is disconcerting. A good memoir is one that gets you thinking about life in general as much as it is a well-told story of one particular life.

  4. “… 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.”

    Maybe. Or perhaps it will simply be a beautiful sunset.

    Good write-up.


    • I agree, Eric. That warning is Didion’s interpretation of blue nights. I personally don’t see that prolonged light as a warning of anything, except, perhaps, a wistful reminder that summer doesn’t last all year long in most latitudes.