Book Review: ‘Blue Nights’ by Joan Didion

L’heur bleu. The gloaming. Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, on sale now.

Book: Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Reviewed by: Jenn S.

This summer, while you were all out swimming and eating sno-cones, I stayed in the a/c and read Joan Didion. Starting with Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I worked my way through all of her published nonfiction. I bought bigger sunglasses and learned to scowl.

I knew I was a latecomer to her work, having had to overcome a stubborn prejudice against scowling female writers before I could convince myself to read her. But from her opening line, “this is a story about love and death in the golden land,” I was hooked.

Today, Blue Nights arrives in bookstores. It is Didion’s sequel to the gut-wrenching Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir that details her husband’s unexpected death. Blue Nights picks up where Magical Thinking left off—that is, with the also unexpected death of Didion’s thirty-nine-year-old daughter, Quintana. For those like me who still have passages of Magical Thinking tattooed on the insides of our skulls, this book offers another frank confrontation with grief and an abiding affirmation of human strength. That sounds sentimental, but read it and you’ll understand.

Blue Nights is very much a story about twilights. Wanting to make a short work last, I meted it out in small doses to read each evening at the blue hour (or central Texas’ closest late-summer approximation). It was hard for me to absorb more than a chapter at a time. Didion focuses (almost too) closely on her personal encounter with death—her child’s and her own—and demands that her reader do the same:

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

This is one of several lines that repeat and resurface throughout Blue Nights. On each repetition, the meaning of the phrase has shifted; the reader has understood at least some tiny fraction of Didion’s experience.

Many reviewers have already cited this as her most personal work, and I mostly agree. The reader watches as Didion reckons with her own frailty, having “made no adjustment whatsoever to aging.” (And when it comes right down to it, she implies, who has?) Here, she presents some irreconcilable truths about herself side by side —the somewhat frivolous lifestyle she led, the somewhat careless way she admits to having raised her child, and the complete abandon with which she guarded her family—and asks the reader to recognize and bear witness to them as the stuff of any person’s inexplicable life.

Blue Nights is an elegy and deserves comparison with another exquisite elegiac work in recent memory: Anne Carson’s Nox. I recommend that you read both while the blue light lasts.

Here is a video of Didion reading from the book in a new documentary by Griffin Dunne.

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