In Blue Nights (Knopf), Joan Didion struggles to deal with the death of her thirty-nine-year-old adopted daughter, Quintana Roo. Quintana died just twenty months after the sudden death of John Gregory Dunne, Didion’s husband of more than forty years, a loss about which she wrote so eloquently in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005).
Because of these two tragedies and their terrible adjacency there is an enormous melancholy at the heart of Blue Nights, a recognition by Didion that she now stands on the threshold of the final stage of her own life: “This book is called Blue Nights because at the time I began it I found my thoughts turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.”
Throughout Blue Nights, Didion confronts her persistent doubts: Was she too fearful in raising Quintana? Did she fail her? There is a tinge of obsession to her repeated self-examination, and a detachment that at times feels clinical, almost cold—as if there were no other way to manage her grief. Yet Didion also recalls occasions of great joy: Quintana’s wedding; and the moment in 1966 when Didion and Dunne “had been handed this perfect baby, out of the blue, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. She could not have been more exactly the baby I wanted.”
Didion has famously claimed that she writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking” and Blue Nights offers additional evidence of this compulsion to “write out” what consumes her: it is writing as psychotherapy: Didion’s attempt to make sense of, and to come to terms with, circumstances beyond her control.