Friday, January 6, 2012

Blue Nights

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (Alfred A Knopf/Random House, 2011) 190 pages

Unspeakable loss ... that's what Didion excels at articulating here and in her previous memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). To lose one's husband as Didion did in 2003, while still painful and life-altering, could not have compared to the loss of her child Quintana Roo Dunne a few short years after that. I faced this book with trepidation as it taps into almost primal fears I have about the loss of my own child.

Blue nights, described as "the long, light evening hours that signal the summer solstice" is the perfect description for this book. It evokes “the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning”. Life at it most intense, most pleasurable, and then it's quick waning - an apt summation of the effect on Didion of the loss of husband and child.

I saw Didion being interviewed by Margaret Macmillan at Habourfront this year at the IFOA. I wouldn't call it the most fruitful author interview I've witnessed. They showed a beautiful short film about Quintana Roo before the interview that was quite affecting. Ms. Didion seemed reticent to delve into the details of her daughter's death or her feelings regarding her death (understandably). Her answers were short, insubstantial, almost curt. Macmillan seemed intimidated by Didion. But then who wouldn't be?

The Year of Magical Thinking detailed the days following the loss of Didion's husband the writer John Gregory Dunne. In that book there was no mention of her daughter Quintana Roo's grave illness which I initially found odd. Quintana eventually died in 2005. Her illness began as a flu that had turned into a deadly strain of pneumonia. She recovered from that but eventually succumbed to acute pancreatitis. Her last years were very difficult, as were Didion's. Didion faced the medical crisis on her own as her husband had died of a heart attack shortly after Quintana became ill in 2003.

This book deals primarily with memories of Quintana - her adoption, her early years as a child and teenager growing up in California in and around the movie industry, her wedding in New York, her catastrophic illness. The New York Times book review called it solipsistic (necessarily so). I don't know how it could not be. I understand the meandering, sometimes repetitive tone of Didion's musings about her child. I find myself often prompting my daughter J's father with queries about the same episodes of J's young life, over and over. The memories are comforting, the repetition is soothing to me as a mother.

We (mother and father) often say to each other ... remember when J called us her "lubbies" (she meant to say "loveys")? Do you remember when she found out there was no Santa Claus? Do you remember how we used park her in front of the TV to comb her long curly hair into pony tails in the morning? Do you remember that first Halloween when she cried and cried in her little cat mask and we couldn't take her out because she was so distressed? These are the stories that parents tell each other especially as the child approaches adulthood. We don't want to let go of the curly-haired toddler who clung to the back of your leg when a stranger said hello to her.

The effect is the same here for me as a mother as I read of the past episodes in Quintana's life. The language is beautiful; the emotion is intense and simply expressed. Her red soled shoes at her wedding; the Hawaiian leis the little girls wore at her wedding; the way her hair was braided; the snippets of her short stories, poems and diary entries. Her telephone queries to a major studio as a child asking how she might become a star. The anecdotes of various trips and childhood relationships.

A young Didion with Quintana at 10 months
The context of Quintana's life is more glamorous of course - the clothes and hotels and vacations more fabulous than anything you or I have experienced. Both husband and wife were wildly successful journalists, novelists and screenwriters. John Gregory Dunne's brother was the writer/gossip hound Dominick Dunne (also now deceased), his nephew the actor Griffin Dunne.

I wonder if Didion has laid it on a little thick with the name-dropping (the Christian Louboutin shoes, the Donald Brooks linen dresses packed for the trip to Saigon, the cakes from Payard in NYC, the hotel stays at the Ritz, the Plaza Athénée in Paris and the Dorchester in London) because of the suggestion that Quintana lead a life of privilege (Didion says that she intensely disliked that description of Quintana's upbringing). She name drops brands and personalities quite rigorously, but then, this was her life, this was Quintana's life ... it was what it was. To pretend that the child was raised in conventional circumstances would be a falsehood.

The days that followed Quintana's hospitalization and eventual death are understandably painful, especially shocking to consider for anyone who has children. But it's not just about the loss of a loved one, it's about facing the prospect of one's own demise. Didion is 77 and has no other children. She seems in precarious health. Certainly in person she projected an image of physical fragility. She looked lost at the conclusion of the interview when signing books, even slightly afraid. It was difficult to observe her up close.

To face the mortality of the child alone when you have barely recovered (if at all) from the loss of one's spouse must have been terrifying. She communicates that loss with grace and beauty. May someone do the same for Ms. Didion


jay r said...

Beautifully written.

A Lit Chick said...

Thank you Mr. J! :)

The October Revue said...

Sober and sobering; tender and critical, the latter in the best and most accurate sense of the word.

A Lit Chick said...

She is quite an idol of mine.