Blue Nights

Blue Nights

3.9 49
by Joan Didion

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A New York Times Notable Book

From one of our most powerful writers, a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter.

Richly textured with memories from her own childhood and married life with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo, this new book by Joan Didion is an intensely personal and moving account of her thoughts,

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A New York Times Notable Book

From one of our most powerful writers, a work of stunning frankness about losing a daughter.

Richly textured with memories from her own childhood and married life with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo, this new book by Joan Didion is an intensely personal and moving account of her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding having children, illness and growing old.

As she reflects on her daughter’s life and on her role as a parent, Didion grapples with the candid questions that all parents face, and contemplates her age, something she finds hard to acknowledge, much less accept. Blue Nights—the long, light evening hours that signal the summer solstice, “the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning”—like The Year of Magical Thinking before it, is an iconic book of incisive and electric honesty, haunting and profound.

Editorial Reviews

In 2003's Where I Was From, Joan Didion tells of a long wagon journey on which her great-great-grandmother buried a child, gave birth to another, contracted mountain fever twice, and sewed a quilt, "a blinding and pointless compaction of stitches," that she must have finished en route, "somewhere in the wilderness of her own grief and illness, and just kept on stitching."

Throughout the book, Didion ruminates on her female forbears, women "pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew," even their own dead babies. It was Didion's adopted daughter Quintana, at age five or six, who first made all this heredity start to seem remote. And if the author harbored any lingering doubt about whether she shared her ancestors' breaking-clean tendencies, the shattering effect of Quintana's death in 2005, at age 39, must have swept it away. In her new memoir, Blue Nights, about life before and after the loss of her daughter, Didion writes, "When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children."

This book may be Didion's harshest, most self-questioning book yet; it's definitely her most beautiful. Like the stitches on her grandmother's quilt, it covers the same material again and again, swooping down on its author's grief with dogged, needle-like precision, from countless angles that don't lead her anywhere soothing. "What if I fail to love this baby?" Didion worried as she carried the newborn Quintana home from the hospital. By the time of Blue Nights, the questions have changed. What if I didn't love her right, the author interrogates herself. What if I didn't love her enough? How could Didion "have missed what was so clearly there to be seen" — "the startling depths and shallows of her expressions, the quicksilver changes of mood," the list of "Mom's sayings" that Quintana posted on the garage wall: "Brush your teeth, brush your hair, shush I'm working"? "Was I the problem?" she wonders. "Was I always the problem?"

Didion dwelt in Where I Was From on her female forbears' tendencies "toward slight and major derangements" and "apparently eccentric pronouncements," traits she'd once seen as biologically endemic. Blue Nights, by contrast, fixates on nurture, on the terrible possibility that a mother's neuroses might be contagious. At the age of five, Quintana called a state psychiatric facility to "find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy." Around the same time, she called Twentieth Century Fox "to find out what she needed to do to be a star." She dreamed of a "Broken Man" who threatened to lock her in the garage, and she wrote a novel "just to show you" that told "why and how Quintana [not just the name of its author but also its protagonist] died and her friends became complete burnouts at the age of eighteen." Once she was born, Didion admits, "I was never not afraid." And she all but blames herself for Quintana's nightmares. "[M]y fear of The Broken Man [was] as unquestioning as her own," she says.

Throughout these struggles, Quintana's psychiatric diagnosis remained frustratingly protean. Manic depression became OCD; OCD became something else, something Didion can't remember now, but something that ultimately gave way to a succession of other conditions before "the least programmatic of her doctors settled on one that actually seemed to apply": borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis that didn't lead to a cure, only "a confirmed, and therefore an enforced, debility." Depressed and anxious, Quintana drank too much. She wished for death as she lay on her sitting room floor: "Let me just be in the ground, she had kept sobbing. Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep." She implored Didion not to read Auden's "Funeral Blues" at her father's funeral. "Like when someone dies," she once told her mother, "don't dwell on it."

Even as she torments herself with memories of Quintana's troubles, Didion recognizes that child-rearing standards change. While parents measure their success now by "the extent to which we manage to keep our children monitored, tethered, tied to us," her own World War Two–era childhood emphasized independence over schooling and friends. She roamed the grounds of a psychiatric hospital, eavesdropped on the patients, and put them into stories. "There was a war in progress," she recalls. "That war did not revolve around or in any way hinge upon the wishes of children. In return for tolerating these...truths, children were allowed to invent their own lives. The notion that they could be left to their own devices — were in fact best left so — went unquestioned."

In the title essay of her 1979 book The White Album, Didion recalls a psychiatric evaluation of her own, conducted in 1968 (two years after she and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, brought Quintana home from the hospital), that said her Rorschach responses "emphasize[d] her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal." Rather than admitting to or denying these claims, or trying to trace the source of her (mild) breakdown, Didion jokes that "an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968."

In Blue Nights Didion brings a compelling and paradoxical blend of skepticism, acceptance, and astringent detachment to bear on these trends in psychology — and how they both reflect and shape our own self-images. As in most of her personal writing, she's highly attuned to these kinds of recursive absurdities, and I would guess she's also more than a little bit amused by them. But, like the very funny Flannery O'Connor, she depicts the ridiculous with a poker face. And, as in O'Connor, the comic element of human existence is always the obverse of something much darker.

In interviews Didion acknowledges that it was a fluke — a flu — that killed Quintana, not mental illness, not alcoholism, not anything she herself did. But as she sees her own health fail, as she tries to "maintain faith (another word for momentum)," follow the doctor's instructions, and "collect encouraging news," as she spends whole days in frigid waiting rooms pondering "this one question, this question with no possible answer: who do I want notified in case of emergency?" she sustains herself by "memoriz[ing] her child's face." Didion's implicit subject has always been the storyteller's conundrum: that in standing far apart enough from life to digest it and to evoke it, the writer forgets how to live in real life. For Didion, to remember Quintana is to tell stories in which she's not a good enough mother to Quintana, but to stop telling these stories is to run the risk that Quintana "will fade from my touch. Vanish. Pass into nothingness." We tell ourselves stories in order to live, she once wrote. If Quintana were to disappear, Didion implies, she herself would stop existing.

Maud Newton's writing has appeared in numerous publications. Her blog is

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.58(w) x 8.14(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt

Blue Nights

By Joan Didion

Random House Large Print

Copyright © 2011 Joan Didion
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780739378434

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. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming—in fact not at all a warming—yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes— the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the
glamour—carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.
Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

From the Hardcover edition.


Excerpted from Blue Nights by Joan Didion Copyright © 2011 by Joan Didion. Excerpted by permission of Random House Large Print, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“Incantatory.... A beautiful condolence note to humanity about some of the painful realities of the human condition.” —The Washington Post
“Heartbreaking.... A searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy mediation on mortality and time.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Joan Didion is a brilliant observer, a powerful thinker, a writer whose work has been central to the times in which she has lived. Blue Nights continues her legacy.” —The Boston Globe

“Exemplary...provocative.... [Didion] comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.” —John Banville, The New York Times Book Review
“A beautiful, soaring, polyphonic eulogy.... What appears on the surface to be an elegantly, intelligently, deeply felt, precisely written story of the loss of a beloved child is actually an elegantly, intelligently, deeply felt, precisely written glimpse into the abyss, a book that forces us to understand, to admit, that there can be no preparation for tragedy, no protection from it, and so, finally, no consolation.” —The New York Review of Books
“Profoundly moving.... This is first and last a meditation on mortality.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Ms. Didion has translated the sad hum of her thoughts into a profound meditation on mortality. The result aches with a wisdom that feels dreadfully earned.” —The Economist
“For the great many of us who cherish Joan Didion, who can never get enough of her voice and her brilliant, fragile, endearing, pitiless persona, [Blue Nights] is a gift.” —Newsday
“Exquisite.... She applies the same rigorous standards of research and meticulous observation to her own life that she expects from herself in journalism. And to get down to the art of what she does, her sense of form is as sharp as a glass-cutter’s, and her sentences fold back on themselves and come out singing in a way that other writers can only wonder at and envy.” —The Washington Independent Review of Books
“Ms. Didion has created something luminous amid her self-recrimination and sorrow. It’s her final gift to her daughter—one that only she could give.” —Wall Street Journal
“Didion’s bravest work. It is a bittersweet look back at what she’s lost, and an unflinching assessment of what she has left.” —BookPage
“Yes, this is a book about aging and about loss. Mostly, though, it is about what one parent and child shared—and what all parents and children share, the intimacy of what bring you closer and what splits you apart.” —
“Haunting.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Breathtaking.... With harrowing honesty and mesmerizing style, Didion chronicles the tragic death of her daughter, Quintana, interwoven with memories of their happier days together and Didion’s own meditations on aging.” —Newsweek
“Darkly riveting.... The cumulative effect of watching her finger her recollections like beads on a rosary is unexpectedly instructive. None of us can escape death, but Blue Nights shows how Didion has, with the devastating force of her penetrating mind, learned to simply abide.” —Elle
“In this supremely tender work of memory, Didion is paradoxically insistent that as long as one person is condemned to remember, there can still be pain and loss and anguish.” —Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair

“Didion’s latest memoir unflinchingly reflects on old age and the tragedy of her daughter’s death.”
—Best New Paperbacks, Entertainment Weekly

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Blue Nights 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I first started reading this book, I was a little put off by the overly wordy or sometimes incomplete sentences. But I stuck with it and am so happy I did. This book is beautiful, compassionate, and wise and touched my heart in many ways. I actually felt like the author was writing the book for me. It is a gift to anyone who has suffered loss.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While somewhat similar in tone to "The Year of Magical Thinking", this book felt much more stream-of-consciousness, much more disjointed in places. Still, the magic of Didion's writing and insights shine through, even when it is somewhat muddled. Far from linear, it jumps back and forth in time, sometimes repeating stories, just in a slightly different context or at a slightly different angle. It's hard to tell if the somewhat disjointed nature of this book is the result of a mother's grief, Didion's advancing age, or a combination of the two. Still, as I said, the magic of her writing shines through. I definitely recommend the book - just don't expect a straight point A to point Z narrative
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read The Year of Magical Thinking five times. I just finished Blue Nights. It was amazing. Didion's commentary on her grief over poor Quintana's passing and her commentary on aging are genuine and forthright. I cannot imagine having the strength to face what she faced in such a short time. Yet she faces her struggles honestly and head on. I hope I have her courage and sense of self when and if I make it to 76 or 77.
vickytren More than 1 year ago
I read a lot of self-help, psychological and true stories books, so I was interested to give blue nights a try and was not disappointed. Great Read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Blue Nights" starts out promising, but by chapter two it reads like a diary-turned-novel. Too many question marks, which makes the tone unnecessarily shrill. I hate to say it (because it feels disrespectful to the memory of Ms. Didion's husband and daughter), but the writing is boring. Definitely do not recommend.
ElaineJK More than 1 year ago
This was a quick read because it had such continuity that I didn't want to put it down. She shares the emotions and thoughts that most of us have when losing those close to us. Sadness without bitterness.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I felt she was conversing with me at lunch. It left me wishing she were my friend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
poor sentence structure. Bounces around. It was difficult to finish.
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She did not get to the point of how her daughter died. She did a lot of name dropping of famous people she knew and hung around but they did not seem to offer any support after her daughter died.
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