Blue Notes for Blue Nights

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Joan Didion's new memoir, Blue Nights, is out this month, and not since Patti Smith’s Just Kids has a single book so inundated my inbox and social media feeds. Colleagues and classmates have been raving over its poignance and power, critics are praising its honesty, and one friend even suggested an impromptu, one-time book club exclusively dedicated Blue Nights. But since we just succumbed to Daylight Savings Time - along with the afternoon darkness and circadian-rhythm confusion it brings - I admit I’ve been reluctant to commit to a such a pensive, raw, and depressing book. In the winter months, I prefer more fantastical and lush writing - Calvino, Proust, Bender, Chabon, Collette - not to mention chocolates, spa treatments, and fireplaces. All these things are, in a word, comforting, and it is impossible to count Didion's latest among them.

In some ways, Blue Nights is the master esssayist’s follow up to 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion relayed the grief that followed the sudden death of John Gregory Dunne, her husband of almost four decades, in 2003. The book won the National Book Award, and shortly thereafter Didion suffered another traumatic loss when her 39-year old adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, passed away (Quintana Roo had been in the hospital while Didion was writing The Year of Magical Thinking)

Such grief is immersive and for Didion, it renewed her old fears about parenthood, the focus of Blue Nights. Throughout, Didion concentrates on her daughter’s life and of Didion's struggle as an author and parent to cope with this second vast loss, asking herself, as the New York Times puts it, “Did she do her duty by her daughter, did she nurture her, protect her, care for her, as a mother should? Did she, in a word, love her enough?”
The Times also calls this book “more raw” than Magical Thinking and Didion told Terry Gross that, "I didn't actually want to write it…I had some dim idea that it was a much less personal book than it turned out to be." The fragile quality of the book has beget thoughtful criticism. This, from the Guardian: “What she cannot do is master her own material: instead of grieving with her, we are watching her grieve. This is a piteous and exposing process, and one which places a moral burden on the reader.”

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but even though I use this Didion quote—“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking”—like I’m being paid to, my familiarity with her work is limited to 1979’s The White Album. So, I’ll join that Didion-centric book-club. Just don’t think any less of me if I require a Zoloft or two to balance Blue Nights with these short Chicago days.