Despite the incredible odds against a writer needing to produce a memoir describing a second round of personal grief so soon after releasing one focused on the death of a spouse, Joan Didion has done exactly that. In that sense, Blue Nights is almost a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking in which Didion detailed the emotional trauma associated with the unexpected death of husband John Gregory Dunn, a loss from which she barely recovered. But, as it always does, life goes on – even when it leads to the death of one’s only child, as it did for Joan Didion less than two years after she lost her husband.
Because Quintana Roo was already dangerously ill at the time of her father’s death, the two books overlap in ways that will be illuminating to readers already familiar with The Year of Magical Thinking. Although the first book primarily focused on the relationship between Dunn and Didion, the couple’s adoption and assimilation into their lives of the baby they named Quintana Roo is an important part of their story. With Blue Nights, the focus shifts more, but not entirely, to the life they shared with their new daughter.
John Gregory Dunn and Joan Didion traveled in exclusive Hollywood circles for much of their lives. They lived the good life, a lifestyle that sometimes placed them and their daughter on the sets of major motion pictures and in the after-hours company of the Hollywood elite of the day. The two were good at what they did and they were rewarded well for their efforts. Little Quintana (who would, as an adult, meet her biological family) held her own in that world despite some early signs that she might not be as stable as she appeared.
For instance, the little girl was obsessed with the scary “Broken Man” who threatened her in her dreams, a man she was able to describe to her mother in colorful and complete detail. At five, she would inform her parents that, while they were out, she had called a mental institution to ask what to do if she went crazy. But in the context of their world, this behavior only seems unusual to Didion in retrospect - as she questions whether she might have done a better job raising her daughter. Blue Nights is actually more about Didion’s reaction to the loss of the two people closest to her than it is about her daughter’s life, a focus that leads directly to what is perhaps the most brutally honest portion of the memoir.
Joan Didion, in her late seventies when she wrote this memoir, is also grieving the loss of one life skill after another as she approaches eighty years of age. She is horrified by an incident that left her dazed and bleeding from a fall she cannot recall to this day. She describes the devastating onset of shingles from which she still sometimes suffers. She rages against her increasing frailty, especially the decreasing sense of balance that makes her so vulnerable to bone-breaking falls. She is saddened by the realization that she will never wear her favorite dresses or high heel shoes again. She fears that her writing skill, the very talent that defines who she is to herself, is deteriorating.
Worst of all, she understands that she is on her own – and will have to experience old age without either of the two people she loved most in the world around to help her through it.