“Freakin’ gorgeous,” my writer friend said about Joan Didion’s Blue Nights.
But, after Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, had I the right to expect her next book to be equally superb?
Well, Blue Nights was supposed to be different from Magical Thinking. It was billed as being about Didion’s daughter, whose death at 39 followed closely on the death of Didion’s husband. His death was sudden (that was what I reacted to the most), her daughter’s decline protracted. His was from a clear cause, hers not so much.
I started Blue Nights because I wanted to know about Quintana Roo, Didion’s adopted daughter.
But, almost from the name- and designer-label dropping, cocktail-sipping opening pages, I disliked it. Was this just an aging (or aged, as Didion says) individual, now indifferent to others, preferring to revel in the accoutrements of her glory days?
She told New York magazine, “I’m not very interested in people.”
Searching for Quintana Roo
Where was Quintana Roo in the memoir? I kept asking my friend. I didn’t care about the 66 dresses in her infant closet. (Didion admitted in an NPR interview that she acted as if she’d “gotten a doll to dress up, not a real baby.”) Even the name, Quintana Roo, infuriates. It’s way too precious, as if Didion and her husband were determined to call attention to their own uniqueness.
Didion probably couldn’t write a memoir of her daughter; I doubt she knew her well enough. She admits as much in an interview with Charlie Rose, saying she didn’t listen to her daughter, and assumes this is true of all parents. (It isn’t.)
By focusing on externals—Quintana’s supposed beauty, and in the memoir’s opening pages, what she wore and served at her wedding—Didion shows she didn’t know much else about her.
I suspect Quintana was tossed on the moving train of her parents’ lives. On the day they formalized her adoption, the infant was hoisted onto a table between them in a bistro, to be cooed over by the wait staff, as if her parents were reluctant to take her home to bond with them and her new home.
Perhaps because Quintana was adopted, Didion was at a special disadvantage. She was inept (calls herself “clueless”), distant (“screened off”), and self-absorbed, and she couldn’t even use the standard reference points: “My baby gulps just like my Uncle Noah when she laughs.”
Didion is aware of her own longstanding refusal to see things, question things. She ignored her child’s fears, and much else. No wonder Quintana, too, shut down, saying, “Don’t dwell on it.”
Nevertheless, I pressed on.
And am I glad I did.
What the memoir’s really about
Blue Nights isn’t a memoir about Quintana. Nor is it just the memoir of a querulous old lady looking back at her life, her friends, her daughter, and herself in their Chanel suits, jetting high above the rest of us.
Didion eventually veers towards her real target—the writer’s words eluding her, the terrified movements suspended in mid action—in a frank portrait of the quivering frailty of old age.
So, for me, Blue Nights ultimately was a memoir of a woman aging without the human props she had expected. (Didion couldn’t think of a single person to write in the space for “In case of emergency.”)
My friend was right. The book is fantastic.
I just wish Didion had told us why in her apartment she has 13 telephones, none of which was within reach when she came to, copiously bleeding, on the floor one day.
Lesley Peebles says
What a fabulous essay, Lynette! You got me all wound up about Quintana Roo (and I have ALWAYS hated that name for the reason you gave), and then turned me around with your final twist. Wow.
Lynette Benton says
Such a well written and thoughtful review!
Lynette Benton says
Thank you, Anna. I hope you found it helpful.
Annette Gendler says
Lynette, I just wanted to say I agree with you. Blue Nights is mismarketed; it’s not about Didion’s daughter or dealing with her death (The Year of Magical Thinking deals with her illness much better and if you haven’t read that, Blue Nights makes no sense.). Blue Nights is a brilliant insight into what it means to grow old. I just wish that I’d seen more of Didion’s brilliant and poignant insights into aging, and that I didn’t have to spend so much time getting over the expectations the book didn’t deliver on.