Joan Didion has long been the most glamorous writer in America. Her attitude–skeptical, curious, singular, and cool–hangs on her simple, angular sentences like a Chanel coat. It does not ruffle. But in the early 2000s, Didion became glamorous for another reason: her suffering. In 2003, her husband of almost four decades, John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack, shortly after their daughter, Quintana Roo, had entered the hospital in septic shock. “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Didion’s profoundly moving memoir of this time, won the National Book Award. It became the book one gave a friend blind-sided by loss.
In truth, Didion’s pain had just begun. In 2005, her daughter died, turning the narrative of their lives inside out: it is unnatural and terrible for a mother to outlive her own daughter. “Blue Nights,” Didion’s new memoir, chronicles the effect of this passage. It is a strange and beautiful book, creatively structured so as to recreate the swirl of memory. We begin in the near present, and then slide back into the past, so Didion can tell the story of her relationship to Quintana, whom she adopted. Raised in a series of hotels, on movie sets, places where she and her husband had gone to work.
The chapters are short, and heavy on the senses. Didion recalls the garden of their Brentwood home; the snakes that hung from the rafters of their garage in Malibu, threatening to drop into the Corvette she parked below. She writes of heavy drinking at cocktail hour, and her daughter’s unsurprising desire to simply skip childhood and join the adults. Who can blame her? Didion and her husband dined with movie stars and producers. They spent summers in St. Tropez. They lived semi-public lives with a kind of grace that one senses was a point of pride.
There is a frank snobbery in this book which hasn’t emerged in Didion’s work before. But it is eclipsed by a great and terrible fear of frailty–which is in and of itself, a kind of frailty. Didion experiences spells; she wakes on the floor of her apartment, unsure how she got there. She knows her balance is not what it used to be. A strong-willed, self-reliant woman, Didion is terrified by this tipping. Still, she remains in enough possession of her humor to be amused by the fact that it takes her several visits to the physical therapist to realize the other people there working on their muscle tone are members of the New York Yankees.
This is not as odd a pairing as it sounds. After publishing “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Didion’s semi-public life became a public narrative. That book was a massive bestseller; she adapted it into a play starring Vanessa Redgrave. As with the trials of celebrities, one had the impression of not just sharing Didion’s life, but knowing it as if it were one’s own. “Blue Nights” reminds what a false collusion this always is. Her nights were longer, bluer, and more confusing than we could have known. And thus Didion has disabused of one other notion. “Blue Nights” is her book on grief, not “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which is really about shock. And grief, however publicly it is witnessed, one suffers alone. (John Freeman)
By Joan Didion
Knopf, 208 pages, $25