Joan Didion has been a successful author who was married to another well-known author, John Gregory Dunne. I first became acquainted with her writing in 2007 when I read The Year of Magical Thinking, about Dunne's sudden death in her presence and her powerful account of her subsequent year of grieving. Less than a year later their only child, an adopted daughter named Quintana Roo, died.
Didion talks in her first chapter about her title choice, Blue Nights. Here are a few excerpts:
"In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue..."
"During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone..."
"Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning."
Chapter two opens with Didion's notation on July 26, 2010: "Today would be her wedding anniversary." We then slide back seven years to the large gathering of friends and family at St. John the Divine Church in Manhattan and hear Gregory Dunne's words describe Quintana's childhood and subsequent days that brought her to this exquisite moment. Later everyone toasts Quintana and her new husband, Gerry, wishing them happiness, health, love, luck, and beautiful children. "Do notice," Didion tells her reader, "we still counted happiness and health and love and luck and beautiful children as 'ordinary blessings.'"
The subsequent chapters are short, absorbing, and written in a non-linear approach that I found initially confusing until I realized subtle threads wove the chapters together. This technique also suggested that it was a reflection of Didion's thought processes. At age 75, she explores not only a huge array of the divergent parts of Quintana's and their life together, but also her present issues of loss, health, medical care, adoption, aging, and aloneness.
Didion's Manhattan apartment is filled with enormous numbers of tangible pieces of her past life and she pulls out many for us from drawers and closets, having saved them since her own childhood as reminders of what was. "I believed I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their 'things,' their totems," she says. She now considers many as detritus and concludes that gathering these tangibles caused her to never fully "see" or experience those moments when they were happening. Yet, Didion makes broad use of photographs, diaries, other collectibles, as well as her memories, to create this well-rounded account of Quintana's life.
In her mid-twenties while working for Vogue, Didion experienced a "tidal surge" of desire to have a child. Eventually, when no child was forthcoming, Didion and Dunne sought adoption; one day the call came unexpectedly and the couple hurried to the hospital where their newborn daughter lay: "an infant with fierce dark hair and rosebud features." Throughout the book, Didion gives her reader valuable insights into adoption: "Adoption, I was to learn although not immediately, is hard to get right."
Didion compared her own childhood with her daughter's. An Army officer's daughter during World War II, Didion, her mother, and brother followed her father from base to base, often not unpacking their bags. Didion describes her own childhood as one of "benign neglect;" she and her brother essentially were left to entertain themselves and it was during these years she began to write stories. She contrasts this childhood to her daughter's, exploring a "normal" versus "privileged childhood," where Quintana was inseparable from both her parents. personal and professional lives.
Bright, often well beyond her years, Quintana grew to struggle with depression, impulsivity, deep fears of abandonment, and suicidal despair. Working within an "imperfect healthcare system," Quintana received a variety of mental health diagnoses before the final "Borderline Personality Disorder." In one part of her exploration, Didion peels away layers of words and actions to search the deep fear of separation her daughter, and many adoptees, experience.
When Quintana was 32, her natural sister found and contacted her. Didion and Dunne had told Quintana when she was quite young—against friends' advice to never tell—that they adopted her as a newborn. Quintana met with her sister and shortly thereafter flew to Texas to meet many of her biological family members. Quintana learned her mother and father had married after surrendering her for adoption and then had two more children, a son and daughter. The ensuing months and events eventually brought a close to the reunion. Despite the loss of connection, Quintana's sister sent flowers when she died.
Didion, in these later writing years, looks back and leafs through her notes for an earlier book. She remarks how little thought she gave to what she wrote in those early works, as opposed to her more recent books, where she obviously gives much thought and depth. An unusually short and petite woman throughout her life and to this day (she can join her thumbs and forefingers around her waist), Didion writes of coming to terms with her increasing frailty, her decline in physical health, and her difficulty without the presence of her husband and daughter. Aging has caught her by surprise and she shares her struggle with moving honesty. "I have lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age. I believed absolutely in my power to surmount...(any) situation."
Could it be that I never believed it?
Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?"
I was utterly absorbed by this book and completed it in one day. Joan Didion has written yet another exceptional book.
Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She is the author of five novels and seven previous books of nonfiction, including: Where I Was From, Political Fictions, The Last Thing He Wanted, After Henry, Miami, Democracy, Salvador, The Year of Magical Thinking.
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