Blue Nights by Joan Didion

I woke up at 1:30 am last night and couldn’t get back to sleep. Casually grabbed Joan Didion’s new book Blue Nights I got from the library and started reading, thinking I could read myself back to sleep. But I was kept awake the next few hours until I finished it. I simply could not put it down.

Blue nights are the span of time following the summer solstice when the twilights turn long and blue… and over the course of an hour or so, this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as if darkens and fades… Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

A poignant ‘sequel’ to The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about the death of Didion’s husband of 40 years, the writer/screenwriter John Gregory Dunne. That all happened in December 2003. John had a heart attack right in the living room of their home as Joan was preparing dinner in the kitchen. That was also a few days after their daughter Quintana Roo was hospitalized with septic shock and a coma.

Blue Nights is a memoir of Quintana, who died of her illness twenty months after her father’s passing. To say it’s a memoir is sanitizing it. In her sensitive and moving voice, Didion describes a searing separation. She recalls the memorable moments, and the mementos around her NYC apartment that prove so futile in evoking a life, a daughter adopted since birth.

Didion remembers the leis Quintana wore at her wedding in NYC’s St. John the Divine on July 26, 2003. Thus begins the book. The wedding reflected Quintana’s yearning for her childhood in Brentwood Park, California.  In the garden were stephanotis, lavender and mint. And it was stephanotis that she wore on her braid as she walked down the aisle.

All the deaths that Didion had encountered among friends and all the ICU visits of others seemed to foreshadow the ultimate fate of her own daughter, dead just 20 months after her wedding.

But nothing can prepare one for the death of one’s child. In fact, Didion painfully states that, time and time again in the book:

When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.

Deaths of friends since had only reinforced the looming weight of a blue night. In the spring of 2009, upon a short notice, one of those phone calls everyone dreads, Didion went to say farewell to Natasha Richardson in a NYC hospital, transported there from Montreal. It was only a minor fall on a bunny slope of a Quebec ski hill, but she succumbed to a brain injury soon after. Didion had known Natasha since she was a young teenager, daughter to Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Richardson, among Didion’s closest friends.

She is particularly disturbed by those who label her and her family ‘privileged’. As I read the book, I can see why she rejects such a term. Death befalls all, even the ‘privileged’, and spares no one with the subsequent pain. It is the starkest common denominator. And with both her husband and only daughter passing within months of each other… she has a reason to rage.  But the pathos lies in the muffled cries she lets out.

And to say one still has memories to cherish is the most ironic euphemism ever to console the grieving:

Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs…

Alas, Blue Nights is exactly that book, an attempt to capture memories before they slip away, and a grief made public so others can share and maybe by so doing, preserve a life.

This is not just a grief observed and incisively expressed, it is also an attempt at keeping the momentum to live. Writing down the pain and loss could well have a certain therapeutic effect as we see the slight humor sprinkled towards the last chapters in an intense and poignant recollection. And yet the end is still the loss, albeit now is shared and hopefully a suffering lightened, however minute the relief.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2011, 188 pages.

***

Other related posts on Ripple Effects:

Natasha Richardson, Nell & the White Countess
Reading the Season: C. S. Lewis

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Blue Nights by Joan Didion”

  1. That woman has been through so much. I can’t even imagine the pain she went through. I’m sure the writing process helped her get through it, but man…so much hurt.

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    Ti,

    Yes, and I feel that it’s a kind of support for her to just read her words and review the book, a minimal sign of sharing the grief.

    Arti

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    1. David,

      Thanks for pointing out the dates. Yes, that’s exactly twenty months, one year and eight months, not quite two years. In the book, Joan Didion is emphatic about using ‘twenty months’ to bring out the short time span (p.15):

      “… how utterly unprepared the mother of the bride was to accept what would happen before the year 2003 had even ended? The father of the bride dead at his own dinner table? The bride herself in an induced coma, breathing only on a respirator, not expected by the doctors in the intensive care unit to live the night? The first in a cascade of medical crises that would end twenty months later with her death?
      Twenty months during which she would be strong enough to walk unsupported for possibly a month in all?
      Twenty months during which she would spend weeks at a time in the intensive care units of four different hospitals?”

      I have added the word ‘twenty’ in front of ‘months’ to clarify. Thank you for your careful reading.

      Arti

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  2. Arti,

    I’m glad to know of this book.

    I can’t recall when I read “Magical Thinking” but it must have been three or four years ago. Time gets away from me but I remember the intimacy of Didion’s storytelling, how what she shared made me feel part of her inner circle of friends.

    But I didn’t know of the later loss of her daughter — and though I say I’m glad to know of the ‘sequel’, I don’t know if I’m quite ready to read it. The year has been a hard one already –and perhaps the subject of daughters and dying relationships hits too close too home — but someday….

    …or night, when I too wake up for no good reason — as I tend to do over half the time anymore — maybe the time will come for reading Blue Nights.

    .
    Janell,

    Magical Thinking was published in 2005. One is ‘primed’ for the tone and subject matter by reading that. Usually bedtime reading can transport me to dreamland, but this time it seems like somebody is speaking to you, and you’ve got the right word, “intimately”. You want to listen to her voice until she’s finished. You don’t want to interrupt… until she’s through. And you feel you’ve given your support just by reading all that she has to say.

    Arti

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  3. This is on my list, but I have hesitated, grief and the issue of mortality close enough to me that I’m not sure I have it in me to seek it out. Didion is an amazing writer and she has always laid bare her soul. I’ve long believed that we keep memory through words. It would appear from reading this that her words will keep the memory of Quintana Roo for generations to come.

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    jeanie,

    You know, I picked it up without much ’emotional burden’. Once I started, Didion had quickly turned my curiosity into empathy, albeit I still remained an objective reader throughout, appreciating the lucid and powerful writing. It’s quite a ‘page-turner’. So one could approach the book as a totally literary pursuit, and need not be emotionally drenched in it. Of course it totally depends on one’s mood and readiness, but I highly recommend it for its literary value.

    Arti

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  4. I read a review of this book that was not nearly so empathetic as yours. The author could not get over Didion’s “privileged” life (tell me, newspaper reviewer, where is the privilege in losing your entire family in under two years) use of brand names (which I do not recall her using in any of her essays), and seemed to want her to wallow in self-pity, something she is constitutionally incapable of doing. The Year of Magical Thinking is remarkable precisely because Joan Didion refuses to descend into bathos, retaining the intense clarity of The White Album. (Gee, can you tell I’m a fan?) It is an act of authorial courage, which is how this new book strikes me as well. The Blue Hour methinks is even more courageous, as the loss of a child is so contrary to the way the world is “meant” to operate, if that can yet be said amidst so much global unrest and war.

    Anyhow, I love the way you approach this book and its author and hope that someday, perhaps, I will have the courage to read it.
    Thank you, Arti.

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    1. ds,

      I was eager to read Blue Nights because after Magical Thinking, you want to catch up with what happened next. You can say it started with some sort of curiosity, but Didion can quickly turn curiosity into empathy. Like you care what happens to the protagonist in a novel. Kudos to her writing style, it’s direct, honest, open, and intimate. If one wants to be coldly critical, one can say that at some point it feels like there’s a bit of whining. But with what had happened to her, even rage is justified. Overall one can sense there’s much restraint, hearing only muffled cries, which deserve a very human response.

      Arti

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  5. I can’t imagine facing so much loss in so short a time span, but I have known friends who’ve all but crumpled inward under that kind of grief. One friend lost her husband, mother, and sister within 18 months.

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    nikkipolani,

    Oh I just can’t fathom the depth of depression one could be engulfed in with circumstances like your friend’s. Didion has done a great job in articulating her emotions and hurt in a way that is movingly restrained, albeit honest and direct.

    Arti

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  6. I’ve just come to this post from another site where I read a gorgeous Wendell Berry poem that spoke about the comfort of being with animals who do not ‘tax their lives with forethought of grief’. It feels like an odd little contrast, and a line which is beautiful and true, but would have been meaningless for Didion, who had to sit through those dreadful 20 months wondering about her daughter’s fate while her husband’s was so fresh in her mind. No wonder she reacts badly to the term ‘privileged’. That poor woman, it’s impossible to imagine how much she went through.

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    litlove,

    ‘Privileged’ can only be used to describe advantages, situations that have positive aspects. It’s non-sensible to say someone is so ‘privileged’ to have so many tragedies. But if the word is used to describe the positive, the material and tangible, including wealth, education, achievement, and yes, even celebrity status, once faced with death, all privileges will crumble at an instant, rendering ‘privileges’ meaningless.

    I’m interested in the poem you mentioned though… the human experience encompassing the highest to the lowest realms of ‘humanness’. It begs the question of whether it’s better to be a sad human than a happy animal? umm… another post. 😉

    Arti

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  7. Lovely review Arti. I can’t imagine trying to put the words together to write about such a harrowing time and Didion has managed it twice now and from the sound of it done it beautifully.

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    Stefanie,

    Hopefully the putting down in words the memories and emotions can have some sort of therapeutic effect, and making a private pain public would bring about empathy for her.

    Arti

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  8. I think I’d suggest anyone reading Blue Nights go back to The White Album and read the chapter called “In the Islands”. It describes a week Didion, her husband and their 3-year old daughter spent at the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu.

    The child is described as “blond and barefoot, a child of paradise in a frangipani lei”. Didion speaks of herself as “a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come…”

    Eventually a different tidal wave came, and washed away both her husband and her baby. But what’s clear is that the woman Didion was endures in the woman she is. Chatter about self-pity, “privilege”, self-absorption and so on are reviewers’ silliness. This is a tough, clear-eyed writer who knows what she’s doing and is willing to stand by it.

    In an interview with the Washington Post, I especially appreciated this oh-so-typical comment by Didion:

    “Writing is what I do. Writers tend to think of writing things down as opposed to not writing them down. I wouldn’t use the word “therapeutic” because there is actually no therapy for this. On the other hand, if something is looking me right in the face, I have to look back at it. ”

    Watching Didion look back at life is quite an experience.

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    1. Linda,

      Thanks for supplementing so richly. It’s interesting to learn that Didion denied the possibility that writing could be therapeutic. I admit I did not know about her view in this aspect until you mention it.

      As for their Hawaiian trip, yes, it was so memorable that Quintana wore leis in her wedding. And she had wanted her flower girls to go barefoot while walking down the aisle but her plan had to be scrapped because the girls had got new shoes which they wanted to wear. Anyway, I can see how much Joan Didion, her husband and daughter treasured each other and their life together.

      Thanks for pointing us to The White Album. That certainly would inform her readers and stir up more empathy as they read Blue Nights. A notion keeps coming back to me as I think about those who might be too critical on her… As Atticus liked to say: “climb into [her] skin and walk around in it… ” but then, I doubt any skeptic would want to take up that challenge.

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  9. When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children. Yes! That is the background fear for every parent. I feel this keenly now, as we await our first grandchild.

    My daughter (the one expecting) has a best friend whose first child (she now has another daughter) was discovered to have anencephaly in the first trimester. Michelle carried her to term, Lyla lived a few hours. I posted about it last year, maybe you recall. The experience was heartwrenching, and also beautiful. She just sent me journal-poems to read about the experience. But I am having a difficult time beginning them, right at this moment. We are going to our daughter’s second baby shower today. I think I need a bit of time, maybe after our baby is born, to begin the journey into Michelle’s experience with Lyla.

    I have just ordered used copies of both of these books of Didion’s, since I had never read the former, and now I can read them one after the other. Thank you for this excellent review.

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    1. Ruth,

      Isn’t it so true that we’re joined by our common predicaments and experiences, even though we have not met. The blogosphere, the Internet, is one marvel universe, shattering borders of time and space. Didion may well be a stranger to me, since I haven’t met her or talked to her, but reading her book I seem to have known her, a bit anyway, and empathize with her circumstance. And once I’ve posted my review, readers share their thoughts so readily.

      Same with your blog. I’m excited for you in your prep. for another phase in life, the welcoming of a grandchild. While we still cherish face to face relationships, we’re gratified that in cyber space, our human experiences can be shared and felt so readily. Thank you for your comment, Ruth. And… prepare for an intense experience reading these two books back to back.

      Like

  10. Thanks for the review! I’d definitely like to read this one, although I want to read The Year of Magical Thinking first. I’m not sure I can bear two grief memoirs one after the other, but it would be interesting to read the two together. I’ve heard a number of interviews with her recently, and it interests me that she’s not a great interviewee; I get the sense the whole process is painful to her. She truly comes alive in her writing, not her speaking.

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    Rebecca,

    Yes, it’s tragic for her to have to write two grief memoirs back to back… I just can’t imagine the devastation… especially knowing how close they were as a small family unit. I’m sure you’ll be captivated by her writing in both.

    Arti

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