Will's Reviews > Blue Nights

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
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's review
Jan 10, 2012

really liked it
Read from January 09 to 10, 2012

I picked this book up in Barnes and Noble yesterday, and started reading it. It's short-- just 188 pages of large text on small pages, and frequent paragraph breaks. Before I knew it, I was halfway through the book; and, so, I went back to Barnes and Noble today and finished it.

Blue Nights is very much an extension of her previous memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. As in the latter, Didion is struggling with loss (this time the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo), and questioning where to go next. She looks to the past, reexamines the details, and searches for meaning in them. While in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion reads through her dead husband's (John Dunne) notes looking for some type of message, here she looks at the small moments and memories she has of her daughter-- a movie screening they went to, off-hand comments she made to her, etc.

As a mother who has outlived her daughter, Didion feels somehow culpable. She questions her parenting, and looks to her own imagined personal failings as responsible for her daughter's death. She worries she never really understood Quintana, never saw her as a fully formed adult, never made her feel secure. Though these insecurities are unfounded, Didion is honest in her presentation of them. Though Blue Nights is a book of loss and self-doubt, it never reads as maudlin (though its short length certainly helps with this).

The Joan Didion in Blue Nights is different from that in The Year of Magical Thinking. In The Year of Magical Thinking, we see Didion questioning who she is in the wake of her husband's death. Didion and Dunne were inseparable during their marriage; and, as such, Dunne's death forces her to question her own identity. In a sense, The Year of Magical Thinking is about Didion coming to terms with the death of her worldview and stasis. In contrast, Blue Nights is about Didion coping with her own mortality and ill health (her "corporeal ineptness"). Quintana's death is both a personal loss, and a reminder of what is to come. Almost accordingly, Didion's health declines in the years following Quintana's death, as she recounts her increasing frailty and medical events that have occurred since.

What I most enjoyed about Blue Nights is Didion's measured introspection. She addresses sentiment and self-doubt, but does not bog down in either. At the same time, the writing is highly personal. Blue Nights, in parts, feels like an exercise in proving her continued existence and capacity. On page 109, after recounting a simple event, Didion writes, "I tell you this story just to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point where I can no longer tell a true story."

Didion constantly returns to the frailty of it all. Though we may acknowledge the mortality of ourselves and those we love, loss always feels sudden. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion begins, "You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends." While in Blue Nights, she tries to look beyond this end by searching through the past and managing the present, for Didion, it's always there.

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