Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

So the real last book of 2011 is Joan Didion's Blue Nights, a slim melancholy volume that matches my mood of a New Year's Eve. ("What? The year is over and I didn't accomplish anything? Alus I'm getting so old.". . . You get the drift.) If you read Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, you know that in the year after her husband died suddenly, she was also dealing with her daughter Quintana's illness. Quintana died a year and a half after her father. This slim volume is a moving meditation on the loss of a child, parenting, and aging.

Didion describes memories of Quintana's life--both pleasant and troubling--and castigates herself for not understanding the emotional issues that her daughter struggled with. Quintana was adopted as an infant, and her parents followed the recommended method of telling their daughter that she was a chosen child, but this approach did little to assuage Quintana's fear of abandonment (she often asked her parents what would have happened if they hadn't been home to answer the phone when the doctor called to say a baby was available). Didion also wonders if she and husband John Gregory Dunne placed their daughter in adult situations too early

At the same time that Didion is dealing with her daughter's death and self-doubt about her parenting, she is facing nagging health problems of her own and sometimes-crippling fear that she will fall and be injured, that her legs simply will not hold her when she tries to stand. She has, in her words, lost her "sense of the possible." As she grapples with the problem of having no one to list as an emergency contact when she checks into the hospital, she realizes that her fear is really the fear of losing her memories of her daughter.

I find it difficult to describe how Didion has constructed the book--she dips back and forth in time, returning to certain scenes, stories, and especially quotes from Quintana as touchstones in her reflections. She occasionally addresses the reader directly, particularly as she worries about her ability to think and write as she once did ("Even the correct stance for telling you this, the ways to describe what is happening to me, the attitude, the tone, the very words, now elude my grasp.") The construction nonetheless conveys well the thoughts that torture Didion as she grieves her daughter, regrets he failures as a parent, and experiences the difficulties of aging.

Favorite passage:

In certain latitudes, there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. . . . Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

[The sentences above are the first and last sentences of the book's first chapter, one long paragraph that explains the title and beautifully sets a tone for the book.]

. . . when we talk about our children what are we saying? Are we saying what it meant to us to have them? What it meant to us not to have them? What it meant to let them go? Are we talking about the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable? About the whole puzzle of being a parent? Time passes.

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