Spy Review: Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights” by David Bruce Smith


On December 30, 2003 Joan Didion became a widow. Her writer-collaborator-husband, John Gregory Dunne, collapsed from a heart attack at the dinner table.

The couple had just returned from visiting their daughter, Quintana, at New York-Cornell Hospital where she lay in a medically induced coma after a horrible flu turned into pneumonia.

As a way of meticulously sorting through her spousal grief, Didion wrote the 2005 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” By the time it had been imagined, written, and published to National Book Award acclaim, Quintana had been a patient in four ICU’s, and four hospitals between two coasts. Twenty months after her father, Quintana died of an infection at the age of thirty-nine.

“Blue Nights” is intended to be Quintana’s story: a spare, powerful and precise account about a loss that is so intense, the reader wants to flinch.

The title refers to “…the gloaming, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour—carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening…This book is called “Blue Nights because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasing to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of…fading, the dying of…brightness.”

Didion is a wordsmith-maestro but, during her pages of recall, she clubs her conscience unnecessarily. “Blue Nights” partially achieves what a competent therapist would recommend to a similarly distressed patient: confront the problem, honestly. However, sometimes Didion proffers reflections, re-interpretations and “renovations” of memory that seem overly critical of her parenting skills. And, because of it the book is occasionally adulterated by Didion Doubt.

Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?

Did I all her life keep a baffle between us?

Did I prefer not to hear what she was actually saying?

Did it frighten me?

How could I have missed what was so clearly there to be seen?

Unanswerable questions, and so the solution for the author has been to craft a kind of momentum-in-her-life that began with the promotion of “The Year of Magical Thinking”; then, a stage adaptation of it, succeeded by a well-received Vanessa-Redgrave-in-the-Lead Broadway run.

Not surprisingly, these twin traumatic tragedies cause Didion a plethora of health ailments: an undiagnosed bleed, a theoretical aneurysm that is determined to be non-threatening, loss of balance, frailty, an unsure memory, a first-time-in-her-life lack of confidence in ability to write, whippet-like thinness and—hopelessness.

The saddest moment in this account occurs when Didion, sitting in a freezing doctor’s waiting room, is “trying to think of the name and telephone number of the person I want notified in case of emergency.”

Usually, one is either lonely or alone, but Didion appears to inhabit each state—simultaneously–for long intervals. Without immediate family and accustomed-to-love, relief appears to come only from her memorably, brilliant art.

Letters to Editor

  1. Carla Massoni says:

    I am a Didion fan, but the recent interview she did with Terry Gross of NPR about “Blue Nights” was very disheartening. Bruce Smith is accurate in his observation that Didion “clubs her conscience” – but perhaps she is right to do so. If the memories she shared with Gross during the interview were true, she may harbor appropriate doubts. She stated that she had no real relationship with her daughter until she was 12 or 13. She thought of her as “a doll and I dressed her up.” When Gross pushed for clarification – “Certainly when she was 10 she must have demanded more from you?” Didion demurred. I was left with the feeling that Quintana simply wasn’t interesting to her. I fear Didion may be questioning the demands of her “memorably, brilliant art.” The blinders her work required may have resulted in her choosing to be alone. Although she has been a great arbiter of her time – she may not have thought it necessary to live in the rough and tumble world of relationships.

  2. Sadly, Carla, I agree with your assessment. Only a few weeks before, I recall an interview with Joseph Heller’s daughter and she referred to the difficulty of having even a “normal” dinner table discussion when Mr. Heller was at the table because, and I paraphrase, he was always writing and/or being a writer. Joan’s mastery of words was played out beautifully in her “Year of Magical Thinking” but the follow-up may reveal some sadder, darker truths about the lack of emotional availability SOME artists, regardless of their craft, might have toward their lovely, needy, non-dollish children. Her writing skills in these last two exercises in grief are more of an indicator of the life of a detached writer seeking attachment in words. What a loss for all of them.

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