Blue Nights is a book about tragedy, guilt, grief and love. Joan Didion's adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, became ill, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died at the age of 39. In this slim volume Didion tries to work through the early death of her daughter, residual grief from the loss of her husband just 20 months before (the subject of an earlier memoir The Year Of Magical Thinking) as well as her own lonely descent into old age, the reality of which seems to have come upon her out of nowhere. The book is a mantra of mourning for her daughter and her own youth. The blue nights of the title are the long twilight hours before the summer solstice, right before darkness falls.
Did all this misfortune occur because she wasn't a good enough mother? Didion lays out a lot of information about her daughter's childhood anxiety, her nightmares, her precociousness (at age five she called a psychiatric hospital to ask what to do if she went crazy). We learn that from birth Quintana was clothed in high priced designer apparel, that she developed a taste for caviar, that she drank Shirley Temples in expensive hotels and signed for them herself, that Didion took her to disturbing adult films when she was still a preschooler and that after trying unsuccessfully to pull Quintana's first baby tooth Didion was prepared to take her to the emergency room. We know that Quintana was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a troubling diagnosis that can only have come after years of familial misery but we are not privy to any of that. Hints are dropped but we don't know how debilitating Quintana's depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse were. We see only the pieces of Quintana that Didion's memory allows us to see. "Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?" Didion asks.
She shifts her focus from maternal guilt to her own mortality, from the life lost to the life left behind. Her physical health is deteriorating, she appears to be alone in the world and cannot come up with the name of a single friend or relative to contact in case of emergency. Her vulnerability is heart wrenching. She has lost her husband, she has lost her daughter but in the end "the fear is about what is still to be lost."
This is a difficult book to read and although it is not sentimental I was left aching when I finished it.