Blue Nights, it must be said, is almost unbearably sad. As in 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking, for which she won the National Book Award, Joan Didion here writes starkly about the death of a loved one. She also muses on her own failing health and her fears of growing old. Yet despite the bleak subject matter, Didion’s writing is as crisp, candid and thought-provoking as ever.
Didion and her husband, the writer John Dunne, adopted daughter Quintana Roo as a newborn in 1966. She was a precocious girl who traveled the world with her parents when they went on assignment. It was this lifestyle that Didion believes made Quintana “the child trying not to appear as a child.” She recalls “the strenuousness with which she tried to present the face of a convincing adult.”
Quintana also showed early on what Didion now recognizes as warning signs of impending mental illness (she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder as an adult). At age five, Quintana called the local psychiatric hospital to find out what she needed to do if she were going crazy. She obsessed about what would have happened to her if her parents had gotten in an accident on the way to adopt her. She assumed a mole on her scalp was cancer. She had suicidal thoughts.
Still, Quintana realized some happiness. She attended Barnard College, worked as a photographer and got married in 2003. But in 2005, just a year and a half after her father died from a massive heart attack, Quintana died at age 39 of acute pancreatitis. Thus, in her late 70s, Didion found herself not only grieving two terrible losses, but also living alone for the first time in decades. This is a precarious situation for an older woman whose doctor suggests she has made “an inadequate adjustment to aging.”
“I had lived my entire life to date without seriously believing that I would age,” Didion writes. “My skin would develop flaws, fine lines, even brown spots . . . but it would continue to look as it had always looked, basically healthy. My hair would lose its original color but color would continue to be replaced by leaving the gray around the face and twice a year letting Johanna at Bumble and Bumble highlight the rest. . . . I believed absolutely in my own power to surmount the situation.”
Blue Nights is Didion’s bravest work. It is a bittersweet look back at what she’s lost, and an unflinching assessment of what she has left.