Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s follow-up to her National Book Award-winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, derives its name from the period of endless, blue twilights in mid-spring. “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness,” Didion writes in the introduction, “but they are also its warning.” The figurative blue nights Didion returns to most frequently in this slim volume are ones spent with her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who died after a series of mysterious illnesses twenty months after her father and Didion’s husband, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed of a heart attack.
While Quintana is the ostensible subject of this memoir, she remains a cipher through much of it. She had a troubled life (Didion refers to “quicksilver changes,” suicidal tendencies, and a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder), but, perhaps as one last effort to make reparations, Didion reveals remarkably little about her. Instead she focuses on all that she herself did wrong. At one point she asks of Dr. Karl Menninger, the author of a book about suicide: “Did he imagine that he had answered the question simply by raising it?” This is also Didion’s modus operandi: to bombard the reader with question after question, primarily on the subject of her failings as a mother, without ever answering them. As such they read as incantation, the crack of a whip against the skin of a self-flagellating parent, although to the accusation of privilege (there are references galore to caviar, Chanel, expense accounts, and five-star hotels), Didion chafes. She writes, defensively, “When I consider what came later—I will not easily cop.”
What emerges in these pages instead of a portrait of Quintana is a meditation on mortality and the often terrifying process of aging. “In fact I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age,” she reflects, after a doctor suggests her adjustment to aging has been “inadequate.” Signs of her body’s decay—hospitalizations, neuropathy, a brain aneurysm—dominate. She has a rueful look at her younger self and recognizes her former arrogance. On Quintana’s wedding day, only a few months before her husband’s death and her daughter’s first trip to the ICU, she writes, “We still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as ‘ordinary blessings.’”
Blue Nights remains, in the end, despite its grim subject matter, a compulsively readable book, one that can easily be finished in the light of a dim winter afternoon. Yet there’s something newly troubling to this fast clip, this severely barren prose. At what point does style become convention? The starkness of her words no longer intimates a flinty clarity. Confusion stalks Didion through these pages, and she admits that writing no longer comes easily to her. While this once encouraged her, she reflects, “I see it differently now. I see it now as frailty.” Indeed, there is something frail about these pages. Didion’s once-piercing remoteness has been lost. By the end a reader might be grieving for Quintana, but she might also grieve for the writer Didion once was, too.