Joan Didion’s 2011 Memoir, Blue Nights

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights

I recently finished reading Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights,” a book about the death of her daughter Quintana Roo. For the past month, every night I would read a few pages before I fall asleep. Towards the end of the book, it was devastating; a few passages made me cry.

For some reason I might be the type of person who is quick to tears — I may be a highly sensitive person; I wept several times while reading Joan Didion’s intensely personal memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” published in 2005. In the book she recounted with piercing detail how she came to terms with her husband John Gregory Dunne’s sudden death at the dinner table. In our age of distraction, I wonder if anyone will remember when was the last time a writer made you cry.

Category: Biography & Memoir | Essays & Literary Collections. It was NT$560 (about US$17.00) for this Vintage International paperback copy when I picked it up a couple of months ago in a bookstore in Taiwan.

It is a little hard for me to believe that Joan Didion has died at age 87 from Parkinson’s disease in 2021 because her books are still very much alive in my life. Below are some texts I noted while reading the book.

Reflecting on her role as a parent

I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies.

On changes in parenting styles over the past fifty years

P93, P94
The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to “raise” the child, to let the child go. If a child wanted to try out his or her new bicycle on the steepest hill in the neighborhood, there may have been a pro forma reminder that the steepest hill in the neighborhood descended into a four-way intersection, but such a reminder, because independence was still seen as the desired end of the day, stopped short of nagging. If a child elected to indulge in activity that could end badly, such negative possibilities may have gotten mentioned once, but not twice.

Digressions on subjects such as her own work in the theatre

I promised myself that I would maintain momentum. […]

[…] A week after placing the ashes in the wall at St. John the Divine, I flew to Boston and back to New York and then to Dallas and back to New York and then to Minneapolis and back to New York, doing promotion for The Year of Magical Thinking. The following week, again doing promotion and still under the misapprehension that momentum was about traveling, I flew to Washinton and back and then to San Francisco and Los Angeles and Denver and Seattle and Chicago and Toronto and finally to Palm Springs, where I was to spend Thanksgiving with my brother and his family. From various points on this itinerary, over the course of which I began to grasp that just going to and from the airport might be insufficient, that some further effort might be required, I spoke by telephone to Scott Rudin, and agreed that I should write and he should produce and David Hare should direct a one-character play, intended for Broadway, based on The Year of Magical Thinking.

[…] As ways of maintaining momentum go this one turned out to be better than most: I remember liking the entire process a good deal. I liked the quiet afternoons backstage with the stage managers and electricians, I liked the way the ushers gathered for instructions downstairs just before the half-hour call. I liked the presence of Shubert security outside, I liked the wright of the stage door as I opened it against the wind through Shubert Alley, I liked the secret passages to and from the stage.

[…] I liked the matzo-ball soup we brought in from the Hotel Edison coffee shop. I liked the place to sit we set up backstage, the little improvised table with the checked tablecloth and the electrified candle and the menu that read “Café Didion.”

I liked watching the performance from a balcony above the lights.
I liked being up there alone with the lights and the play.

I liked it all, but most of all I liked the fact that although the play was entirely focused on Quintana there were, five evenings and two afternoons a week, these ninety full minutes, the run time of the play, during which she did not need to be dead.

During which the question remained open.
During which the denouement had yet to play out.
During which the last scene played did not necessarily need to be played in the ICU overlooking the East River.