Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicled the overlap of two catastrophes: the critical illness of her adopted daughter Quintana Roo and the sudden death of her husband of forty years, John Dunne. Between the writing of that memoir and its publication in 2005, Quintana died at age 39. She had suffered a 20 month illness which started as a flu, advanced to pneumonia and sepsis, with intracranial hemorrhage and other complications necessitating 5 surgeries and extended intensive care unit stays. Blue Nights is a meditation on Quintana, and her mother's consuming sense of loss over the tragedy of her only child.

Blue nights refer to the quality of the light during evenings around summer solstice, a time of year which the author feels starts the whole cycle of diminishment and death. The memoir begins with a reminiscence of Quintana's wedding in July 2003 (the same year she falls ill and Dunne dies), as seen 7 years on by Didion. Throughout the description of the wedding are particulars of dress, flowers, design choices and locale which are not only precise, but also hold tremendous meaning to Didion. The branding of clothing, furniture, dishware, hotels etc, is dominant in many parts of the book - the Didion-Dunnes' family life was filled with movie stars, glamorous restaurants, and the hard work of writing. We see Didion on book tours and backstage during the Vanessa Redgrave one woman show of A Year of Magical Thinking.

Although Quintana's death and dying are prominent in the book, her whole life is explored. Issues of her adoption, her mental illness(es), her precociousness and talents, and above all, her relationship with her mother are intimately explored. The reader is given her childhood poems and descriptions of her nightmares and toys.

Another prominent theme is aging. The author was born in 1934, the same year, she notes, as Sophia Loren. Didion experiences neuromuscular problems and describes a particularly frightening episode of loss of consciousness and bleeding. She fears the deterioration of her cognitive abilities and laments she is unable to gain weight. She has a supportive and loving family and network of friends, but ultimately she ponders her aloneness, the lack of someone's name to write down on hospital forms as her emergency contact.  


Didion uses precise descriptors and phrases as leitmotifs – to capture in shorthand certain scenes and times. These phrases, like “Sara Mankiewicz’s Minton dinner plates,” or “After I became five I never ever dreamed about him,” are repeated numerous times throughout the text, like sporadic choruses or echoes. Didion takes on potential detractors who might feel less sympathetic due to the luxury of Quintana’s upbringing (Didion shops at Saks for baby necessities). She posits that Quintana’s suffering in her illness and dying outweighs any ‘privilege’ she may have experienced as a child and young adult (page 76). Whether one has issues or not with the boutique preciousness of some of the branding, one ultimately has to have an admiration for Didion’s work ethic and her choice to continue to create despite, or perhaps because of, her losses. 



Place Published

New York



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