Joan Didion‘s newest book is about losing her daughter. She calls it Blue Nights. Didion says that “blue nights” are the long, light evening hours that signal the summer solstice, “the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but also its warning.”

The book examines her own childhood and her married life with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and daughter, Quintana Roo,

Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking in the year following the death of her husband from a massive heart attack on December 30, 2003, while their only daughter, Quintana, lay unconscious in a nearby hospital suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. The book is about Dunne’s death, Quintana’s illness, and Didion’s efforts to make sense of a time when nothing made sense.

Didion lived and worked side by side with Dunne for nearly 40 years, His death put her into a state she calls “magical thinking.”

And now she deals with losing her husband and only child within 20 months of each other.The book is about mental illness, mothering, fate, and what she sees as our unfounded faith in medical technology.

Quintana died just six weeks before the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking,. She had a lifetime of suffering and a series of cascading illnesses including pneumonia, septic shock, pulmonary embolism, brain bleeding, and on top of that emotional problems.

“When I began writing these pages I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them. The ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear. The ways in which neither we nor they can bear to contemplate the death or the illness or even the aging of the other.

As the pages progressed it occurred to me that their actual subject was not children after all, at least not children per se, at least not children qua children: their actual subject was this refusal even to engage in such contemplation, this failure to confront the certainties of aging, illness, death. This fear. Only as the pages progressed further did I understand that the two subjects were the same. When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children. Once she was born I was never not afraid. I was afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet, The Broken Man himself. I was afraid of rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors. The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her. A question: if we and our children could in fact see the other clear would the fear go away? Would the fear go away for both of us, or would the fear go away only for me?

Picasso's blue-period "Woman With Crossed Arms"

If must have been strange for Didion to turn her writing so inward. She once reprinted her own psychological evaluation, so its not like she hasn’t used her personal story to write about others and about the world. But in Blue Nights, Quintana’s life is wrapped with Didion’s own physical problems and the blue twilights that give the impression that darkness might never come. “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. I was no longer, if I had ever been, afraid to die: I was now afraid not to die.”

It sounds like a total downer of a book. I picked it up after my mother died, which either sounds logical or stupid depending on how you deal with grief and loss. I take from it more of what it means when Didion says “We all survive more than we think we can. We imagine things — that we wouldn’t be able to survive, but in fact, we do survive. … We have no choice, so we do it.”

She also considers how memories in boxes, drawers and closets and photographs and mementos should (theoretically) bring back a person or at least a moment with that person but in fact, they only make clear how inadequately we appreciated the moment when it happened.

Listen to Kimberly Farr read an excerpt from Blue Nights

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