Blue Nights by Joan Didion is another memoir about loss and grieving from a writer who has not only walked this path before but did so masterfully. Her book on her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, remains the only book I’ve read about loss that made emotional sense to me, raw and complex. He died of a heart attack while their daughter, Quintana, was in a coma and, less than two years later, Quintana herself died. She was criticized for writing about her daughter’s death in her first memoir, a criticism I frankly find vulgar and offensive. I am grateful that Didion was able to dig within, to face the darkness of her experience.
In this new memoir, Didion writes about her daughter’s death as well as her life, from how she came to be adopted through moments of her childhood, moving in and out of time, weaving together the past memories with the present grief. Although some of the short chapters read more like snapshots initially, in Didion’s hands each becomes a piece of an intricate collage where metaphors gradually build to tell a cohesive story of a woman who is falling apart under the weight of tremendous loss.
This memoir lacks the imperative tone of the former, feels sometimes more removed as the author writes about the trivial realities of getting older and being unable to wear heels and, in nearly the same breath, recalling the shoes her daughter wore on her wedding day. If this book feels less emotionally distraught, can there be any blame? How does a mother write the reality of what it means to lose a child? But there will probably be those who read this memoir and criticize it for being less. Less raw. Less painful. It even has fewer pages. And yet, had Didion tried to show how very deeply these emotional wounds cut, I don’t think anyone could read what she had to say because anyone who marries does so with an awareness than one or the other will die and the surviving partner will be left behind to grieve. But no mother gives birth to a child and expects to outlive her.
That Didion had the courage to write about this at all should be enough. More than enough. And so it is.