Review: Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Thursday 23 February 2012
I’ve written before about Joan Didion’s ability to punch me in the gut and send me into fits of nostalgia. Her lyrical sentences entrance me, stinging my heart as they percolate in my mind. Somehow, Didion’s reflections of her own life always cause me to pause, forcing me to recall the times and places and people I’ve known that are now long gone. Her latest memoir is no exception, stirring up feelings of nostalgia, and at times, melancholy.

Blue Nights is murky and sorrowful, recalling the grief and questions that filled Didion’s mind following the death of her only daughter, Quintana Roo, in 2005. Didion offers vague and sparse details about her daughter’s life and illness, which irritated some reviewers; however, Blue Nights isn’t a book about Quintana Roo. It’s a book about the survivor scars that Didion bears, especially those of grief and regret.

Didion doesn’t only mourn her daughter’s death in Blue Nights, but also the deaths of countless friends and family members, including her husband, John Dunne, who died suddenly in 2003.

“I find many mass cards from the funerals of people whose faces I no longer remember. In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”

Unlike other memoirs about loss, Blue Nights does not leave readers feeling hopeful or optimistic that life regains purpose after a loved one dies; rather it seems that the weight of Quintana Roo’s death is heavier than frail, aging Didion can carry. Unlike in her last memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion contemplates her life without her husband while Quintana Roo clings to life at a nearby hospital, Didion does not exude any feelings of hope. Instead, she simply goes through the motions of her daily life, visiting doctors for various ailments and trying to write, an action that no longer comes easily to her.

Didion’s stark honesty about loss and aging is startlingly authentic, if not ominous, to readers, yet this is what makes Blue Nights a must-read. While I realize that I risk sounding cheesy by saying this, the greatest thing about Blue Nights is the book’s ability to subtly urge readers to pay greater attention to the moments and people before they pass, before they become symbolized only by mementos strewn and abandoned in shoe boxes and drawers.


  1. I just read this book immediately after devouring The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion has a gift for presenting raw emotion in a spare but thoughtful manner. You are right about the lack of optimism in Blue Nights. It seems that aging and the loss of a child are not things with which the author can make peace. I'm a bit terrified of getting old now! LOL. Thanks for this review, you captured the spirit of the book beautifully.

  2. This is a very powerful book written by one of the great American writers of the second half of the 20th century. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND!

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