When Joan Didion’s husband and writing partner John Gregory Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack in 2003, the couple’s adopted daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, was comatose in an ICU with septic shock. Within two years, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis, leaving Didion suddenly without her husband and daughter. The prolific essayist wrote The Year Of Magical Thinking about the aftermath of her husband’s death and daughter’s illness, but at the time of publication, Quintana was still alive. Now, six years after the second tragedy, Didion’s Blue Nights is by no means a sequel, nor reopening the same wound. It’s a second injury, an exploration of deeper, more unfathomable pain.
Didion’s signature meditative and recursive style is well-employed when focusing on motherhood, adoption, and her daughter’s growth. The book starts logically enough at Quintana’s wedding before bouncing back to the circumstances leading up to her adoption by Didion and Dunne, and on through Quintana’s childhood. Though Didion’s writing style can be off-putting, as a master of New Journalism, she often finds captivating, unparalleled grooves. Her expansive thinking on the psychological effects of adoption, as well as generational comparisons between her own latchkey independence and the meticulously monitored and shielded current youth of America, is particularly striking. No matter how much oversight parents have, there are “always dangers to children.”
Every minute detail of Quintana’s childhood gets dissected, from her forays into writing as a young girl to the way she grew accustomed to a life of privilege in childhood that Didion analyzes in order to think of it as “normal.” She constantly grasps for a time that no longer exists, which is how the book gets its title. Blue Nights refers to “twilight,” “gloaming,” or “l’heure bleue”—a beautiful, mystical, fleeting part of evening. For non-parents, it’s nearly impossible to empathize with Didion’s attempts to cope with the death of a child, but her best observations on motherhood at least allow for deep sympathy.
In 2006, Everyman’s Library published a compendium of Didion’s first seven nonfiction collections, appropriately titled We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live, taken from the opening line of her landmark essay “The White Album.” That anthology title rings particularly true on Didion’s attitude about writing as a mechanism for dealing with all the tragedies life can throw out. Like the species of sharks that must swim forward to live, Didion must write. In the second half of the memoir, her chronicles of aging range from acutely attuned to laboriously whiny, far less gripping or sympathetic than her yearning for understanding of her daughter’s life. The shift seems more than cathartic for Didion, and crucially necessary for her continued survival, but that doesn’t make it required reading. While Blue Nights isn’t a retread of The Year Of Magical Thinking, it also isn’t as sharp. Didion’s style still has the same magnificence in flashes, but it sometimes doesn’t have its old awe-inspiring power.