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Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Blue Nights by Joan Didion Many readers discovered the work of Joan Didion a few years ago when her book The Year of Magical Thinking was published, and became an instant bestseller. This book was about the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Dunne, and her own experience with grief.

Little did she know that her experience with grief was only just beginning. Joan Didion’s husband died in 2003, and their daughter, Quintana Roo, died less than two years later, in 2005. One can only imagine the devastation of this experience.

Joan Didion describes her new book, Blue Nights, as a meditation on motherhood and aging. A book she says was so difficult to write that she almost returned the publishers advance.

Blue nights, for Joan Didion, are the long summer solstice evening hours, a time of reflection, a melancholy time. As she explores her own experience as a mother, and as she revisits her daughters childhood years Joan Didion looks at that time with the maturity of age, and the clarity of grief.

I have put two photographs with this review – one taken of Joan and Quintana in 1969, when Joan would have been 35 years old, a beautiful and happy mother – and one taken this year, Joan Didion at 77, a woman worn by time – and grief.

Early in this book Joan Didion writes “this was never supposed to happen” and then wonders why we might think this, as none of us are “promised a special exemption” from the heart-breaking things that might happen in our life. Many of us share her experience of “the ringing telephone you wish you had never answered”. She goes on to think about the “ordinary blessings” we all share, that really are not ordinary at all – they must be cherished each and every day.

As this mother remembers, she acknowledges what she can now see as warning signs, that all was not well with her daughter, but life was busy and she had no reason to look for them at the time. She does have wonderful memories of her daughter’s childhood, and later of her wedding – a lavish celebration for family and friends. Joan Didion and John Dunne were busy writers, traveling constantly, moving in celebrity circles, their daughter always with them. But memories do not bring solace to a grieving parent – those memories may simply contribute to the pain, they may simply make it all the more awful that this child is no longer living.

After Quintana Roo’s death, her mother reflects on all the things she wished she’d said when her daughter was alive, that she can’t tell her now – how much she appreciated her – how much she should have appreciated the small things – how she should have told her daughter how much her mother loved her. She also noted that as a parent you promise to protect your child, but that children are inherently unprotectable.

Joan Didion has been interviewed by Charlie Rose many times on his PBS interview program. In a recent interview about Blue Nights it was obvious that Charlie Rose was being as gentle as he could be with a very fragile looking Joan Didion, but he did not shy away from asking about the difficult questions that she examined in her book. She spoke about this book being not only about her daughter, and her experience with grief, but also about how we think of ourselves as we age – something she had never spent much time thinking about in the past. Not only do our children age, but we do as well.

Asked, by Charlie Rose, “How do you survive?”, Joan Didion answered, “by going from day to day”. She knows she is not responsible for all of the things that she cannot help but feel guilty about, and she does not regret her life. In her sadness, when asked what she lives for, she answered, “certain small moments of great beauty” such as an unexpected sublime sunset.

An amazing woman, an exceptional book.

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