Joan Didion writes of grief, daughter’s death

Henry Clayton Wickham

In her award-winning memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion wrote about losing her husband to a sudden heart attack in 2003. Knowing Joan Didion’s daughter had also died by the time the book was released made the heartbreaking read even more tragic. In her new memoir, “Blue Nights,” Didion, 76, delves deeper into her grief as she mourns her daughter’s death and struggles with her own feelings of frailty and loneliness in old age.

Though bravely rendered, the Didion story itself is laced with the fear that accompanies aging and loss. In fact, the book is more a portrait of fear than a portrait of her daughter Quintana Roo, who Didion admits “is one of the areas about which I have difficulty being direct.” Didion’s fears and regrets intensify through the repetition of certain phrases throughout the book. The recurring voices, whether from Quintana, Ecclesiastes or Didion’s own head, are haunting. They resurface and deepen in significance until they seem to suggest the relentless ebb and flow of grief itself.

Didion presents vivid snapshots of her daughter at different points in her life. We see Quintana wearing a braid on her wedding day, her plumeria tattoo visible through her veil; we see her being dropped off for school in Malibu backed by the big blue pacific. Didion portrays Quintana as a precocious child. She describes how Quintana, an anxious but self-assured 5-year-old, once called the local asylum to inquire about “What she needed to do if she goes crazy” and once asked Didion’s agent “When do you give her the money?” after being dragged along to a meeting.

“Shush, mom is working” — something Quintana wrote as a child on her list of “Mom’s Saying­s” — painfully repeats as Didion dwells on fears that she may have pushed her child away. Maybe it is because “Blue Nights” is not structured chronologically or because Didion too frequently digresses with stories about now dead friends, but for whatever reason, a warm-blooded Quintana does not emerge from Didion’s grief and the handful of well-wrought images presented in the book. Ultimately, the real Quintana seems obscured by Didion’s grief, not revealed by it.

Didion’s prose is most poignant in the parts of the book where she describes the corrosion of self-trust that she has experienced with age. “When we lose our sense of the possible, we lose it fast,” she writes of her diminishing physical and cognitive ability. She describes fainting one day in her New York apartment and lying bloodied on the floor, “visualizing the unreachable telephones” in the house and being too exhausted to move. After the fainting spell, she was taken to the hospital and misplaced in the cardiac unit, where nurses reproach her for her ignorance about the heart condition she doesn’t have.

As Didion reflects on her past homes, her dead friends, incompetent doctors and her daughter, her understandable negativity seems, at times, like the only glue keeping the pieces of the memoir in place. Didion gives us no cohesive story, no direct narrative to take solace in. This may be what she intended. Regardless, Quintana Roo is mostly absent in this book while Didion’s pain is intensely real, and this makes “Blue Nights” a difficult book to read.

The effort of reading “Blue Nights” pays off in certain brilliant moments but not consistently as one would hope for with a writer like Didion. Her reflections on old age and its loneliness are riveting. One of the most moving moments occurs near the end of the book when Quintana enters one such reflection. “How could I not still need that child with me?” Didion asks, making the depth of her loss painfully clear.

Printed on Monday, November 7, 2011 as: Author writes of grief, daughter's death, dwells on fear, negativity following loss