Joan Didion, author and journalist, grew up a military brat around the time of World War II. She went to college at Berkeley, and after graduation wrote a telling account of “flower children” in the book Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In the book, one of these hippies predicts that she'll be faced with “double death” in her life. At the time, no one could have imagined that this dark line would, in fact, prove true. Didion’s husband, John Dunne, died of a heart attack at the dinner table on December 30, 2003, at the time their daughter, Quintana Roo, was very ill. (Quintana was in the hospital with what started as a flu, but left her in the Intensive Care Unit.) A little over a year after her husband’s death, she immortalized him in the bestseller, The Year of Magical Thinking. Quintana passed away shortly before the book's publication, and Blue Nights serves as a sequel--Didion’s story for her daughter.
On Nov. 1st, I went to the book release for Blue Nights at Barnes & Noble. The store was ill-equipped to deal with the massive crowd that came for Didion, who fielded questions from the audience and an interviewer, also taking time to read from the book and do a signing. I was a little embarrassed at how excited I was to be in the author's presence.
Blue Nights is less a memoir and more an interactive tale that, at times, takes on the quality of a thriller. Readers clamor to know what happens next, but she merely alludes to it, tells a different story, then goes back—finally making us aware, for example, of Quintana’s difficulties with her birth mother (Joan Didion had adopted her daughter). Coming to terms with aging is as much a part of Blue Nights as motherhood and Quintana. Didion is beginning to truly deal with aging for the first time in the book, and describes herself as an otherwise-composed woman who breaks into tears after an innocent child calls her “wrinkly.”
Blue Nights (named for the period of night in New York during twilight, when the day turns a deep blue) is heart-wrenching. For Didion, the blue night came to represent hope but also a caution--a testament to the inevitability of aging and illness. The book closes with Joan in a doctor’s office. She is asked who should be notified in case of emergency, and cannot think of anyone. The only person who she feels should be notified is Quintana. “Only one person needs to know. She is of course the one person who needs to know…I imagine telling her. I imagine telling her because I still see her.”
At the Barnes & Noble appearance, Joan was asked to read a portion of Blue Nights. During a particularly emotional section, her voice cracked and it sounded like she was choking back tears. Everyone applauded.