Every time I read a book by Joan Didion, I am struck by her skill. Blue Nights is no exception. This non-fiction rumination centers around what it means to raise a child and to lose that child prematurely, all while dealing with one’s own aging. It is a powerful look into Didion’s psyche. “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children (p 16),” Didion says, a phrase she repeats several times throughout the text, like a mantra. She crafts her story expertly, drawing in parallels from different events in her life to create a cohesive structure. Blue Nights has tension, it has voice, it has three-dimensional characters and events that pull the reader from one chapter to the next, from one page to the next. Often I have found that memoir struggles to maintain my attention, and yet throughout the three days it took me to read Blue Nights I found myself thinking about the book when I was not reading it, looking forward to returning to it, totally engrossed when I had it in front of me. That, in my opinion, is the mark of a successful work.
Joan Didion’s use of literary devices such as repetition, alliteration, and intense imagery has a poetic effect on the text, at times creating a dreamy atmosphere. She begins the book explaining the meaning of blue nights, an ongoing theme and metaphor throughout the text. “As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone…Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning (p 4).”
Quintana: Her Character and Didion’s Complicated Relationship With Her
Another successful aspect of Blue Nights is the character development of Didion’s daughter Quintana, and also of Didion’s development as the narrator. For much of the book, Didion delves into her daughter’s personality, exploring Quintana’s motivations and insecurities. She and her husband adopted Quintana at birth, their only child. Consequently, much of Quintana’s childhood was spent trying to behave like an adult. Didion explains, “As I describe these very clear memories I am struck by what they have in common: each involves [Quintana] trying to handle adult life, trying to be a convincing grown-up person at an age when she was still entitled to be a small child (p 86).” As I am working on a novel about a woman losing her child, the insight into Didion’s relationship with her daughter was alone worth the time spent reading this book. “When I began writing these pages,” Didion starts, “I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them (p 53).”
Didion’s Fear Of Failure As A Parent
The most important insight, though, was in Didion’s own fear of failure as a parent, how her daughter’s death brought that fear into the forefront of her mind. In some ways, this book seemed to be her examination of the quality of her parenting: did she neglect her daughter? Is it her fault Quintana died? “Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies (p 93).” How could a parent not blame themselves for the death of a child? Consequently, how will that self-blame affect the rest of that person’s life? Will they begin to question their own stability, as Didion does a few years later?
When we think about adopting a child, or for that matter about having a child at all, we stress the “blessing” aspect.
We omit the instant of the sudden chill, the “what-if,” the free fall into certain failure.
What if I fail to take care of this baby?
What if the baby fails to thrive, what if this baby fails to love me?
And worse yet, worse by far, so much worse as to be unthinkable, except I did think it, everyone who has ever waited to bring a baby home thinks it: what if I fail to love this baby? (p 58).