Blue Nights isn't the book you're expecting.
This has been made clear from the numerous articles found in a quick Google search for 'Quintana Roo Dunne,' Joan Didion's daughter, that criticize the book and its author for failing to discuss the particulars surrounding Quintana's death. From Jezebel is the sensational headline, 'Did Alcoholism Kill Joan Didion's Daughter?' and from The Fix, 'Is Joan Didion in Denial About her Daughter's Alcoholism?' These headlines alert me to a couple of main points: one being that Blue Nights does not contain the expected information. And two, that readers are altogether missing the point.
Blue Nights is Didion's follow up to her heavily lauded memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. There are parallels between the two. Both detail the loss of a loved one- in her earlier memoir it is the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and here it is her only daughter, Quintana. Both also examine the events surrounding their deaths. It is true that Didion seems much more willing to examine the medical details of her husband's sudden heart attack than she is Quintana's death. She has been criticized for this lack of precise information given. She has also come under scrutiny for appearing unwilling to mention Quintana's pancreatitis, which tends to stem from alcoholism. This is the main fault readers seem to find with Blue Nights.
Yet what Didion builds in Blue Nights is much more than a scientific memoir. To me, it is completely irrelevant how, precisely, Quintana died. If her health problems were related to her being an alcoholic, no matter. There are other facts that Didion makes repeatedly throughout the book: Quintana had struggles and difficulties Didion often ignored and overlooked while she was alive. Didion feels a profound guilt and questions whether she was a good mother to Quintana. This candid examination of motherhood, her own shortcomings and her profound grief are the point of this book.
There is a quote early in Blue Nights where Didion explores what it means to talk about our children. She writes:
When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.
All right, of course I can track it, of course you can track it, another way of acknowledging that our children are hostages to fortune, but when we talk about our children what are we saying? Are we saying? Are we saying what it meant to us to have them? What it meant to us not to have them? What it meant to let them go? Are we talking about the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable? About the whole puzzle of being a parent? (16)
I quote it at length because it captures the essence of Blue Nights. Much more than an examination of Quintana's death it is an examination of her life and what she meant to Didion. Her immediate love for the beautiful baby girl she adopted and treated like a doll. Her confusion regarding Quintana's precocious and sometimes strange behaviour as a child (she called a psychiatric facility at the age of five to ask what she needed to do if she was going crazy). Her inability to adequately parent this adopted child who came with flaws and mental health issues. The immense grief she still feels years later. If she neglects the details of Quintana's death, Didion never shies away from her complicated memories of Quintana and her own limitations as a mother. It is this she examines in close detail.
The memoir is filled with Didion's various recollections of Quintana. Written in a free-flowing style that leaps across time and space, only guided by Didion's own mind and the connections she makes between events, it is deeply personal. The memories of Quintana's childhood, adolescence and adulthood are not necessarily what a reader might feel to be important. They are what Didion herself finds herself contemplating again and again. To say Blue Nights is about Quintana is false. Rather, it is about Didion's reflections on Quintana. This is not the same thing.
Midway through the book Didion states, 'Memories are by definition of times past, things gone... Memories are what you no longer want to remember.' In itself, this quote makes clear that Didion has memories she would rather forget. It also makes clear that there are memories of Quintana she avoids and ignores. But to say this is a limitation of the book is absurd. A personal memoir is called so precisely because it is personal. For Didion to omit medical records from the memoir is her right. It is a memoir, after all.
Of the two books, I found myself more affected by The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet I wonder if this is because I happened to read it first. Already having read Didion's previous reflections on grief, mourning and memory, the shock value of Blue Nights was certain to be lower. However, it is still is a worthwhile read for anyone concerned with these themes or fans of Didion's work. Like her previous writing, Blue Nights offers detailed reporting, poignant reflection and raises questions to be further considered. If you can get past the exclusion of facts you might have expected, you'll find it a satisfying read.
3.5/ 4 Stars