I first heard of Joan Didion while excitedly discussing literature with an old colleague and friend. We were stumbling through authors and titles like two toddlers rushing to run before mastering walking.
There was an air of joy and enthusiasm as we exchanged stories. Literature that had shifted something inside of us enough to warrant a recommendation to a friend.
Didion’s name happened my way again when I overread a discussion about the best American writers still alive. Hers was the only female author mentioned. I thought this is an author I should read. This is a woman whose literary craft has made a mark in the world and I want to see what her work is about.
And so I began my adventure with Joan Didion’s national bestseller “Blue Nights.”
A few precursors that may be important to know. I HATE watching or reading anything out of order. I cannot start a show in the second or third season, even if there are series recaps readily available. It goes against every natural bone in my being. I enjoy sequence and order.
“Blue Nights” (2011) is the second to last book published by Didion and only after finishing the memoir did I realize that it was the second book she wrote about grieving. The first, “The Year of Magical Thinking” was written in 2005. She lost her husband and then her daughter shortly after and wrote her memoir novels in that same order. If I could go back, I would have started with “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
(You don’t have to do this. There are no missing pieces necessarily, but if you have similar tendencies to mine it may be something to keep in mind. It may make the book more of an enjoyable read.)
Chapter one is a short and poetic explanation of the title. Didion describes the period of time between day and night, the period of time that starts in late April and May, where you find yourself swimming in the color blue. Where the blue of the sky deepens, where slowly and with caution, brightness fades and darkness enters. The French call it ‘l’heure bleue.”
Didion closes the chapter by saying,
“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.”
Poetic, right? Strong start. Didion’s craft is undeniable.
Then she lost me for a few chapters. So much so that I almost considered discontinuing the book. This novel is non-linear, jumping from different points in time with no particular center point of reference. This is an experimental, stylistic choice that can work – I don’t doubt that, but I found the characters difficult to relate to initially.
She describes movie directors and famous actors/actresses who lived as her neighbors in Hollywood and are no longer alive. Upon completing the novel, I realize this was her way of building on the theme of mortality and memories, but I couldn’t help but feel like she was dropping names so that the reader knew how important she really was and who she rubbed shoulders with.
Around chapter 8, the story starts to pick back up for me. Didion details all the different diagnoses her daughter Quintana was given throughout her life and even reveals and shares the story of her adoption. (BTW the story behind Quintana’s name is also meaningful and poetic. Didion writes with intentionality down to every last detail.) It was in this building that I found myself better able to connect with Quintana. It was here that I felt more indebted to her story.
Right around this point in the book, Didion goes and inserts an awkward, but a seemingly intentional detail that is likely the one that tainted the novel for me. Oh so briefly, she mentions Arcelia, her “undocumented alien” nanny, and housekeeper.
In the following chapter, Didion explains why she included the detail about Arecelia and Quintana’s vast wardrobe:
“I was not unaware as I did so that a certain number of reads (more than some of you might think, fewer than the less charitable among you will think) would interpret this apparently casual information (she dressed her baby in clothes that needed washing and ironing, she had help in the house to do this washing and ironing) as evidence that Quintana did not have an ‘ordinary’ childhood, that she was ‘privileged.’
I want to lay this on the table.
‘Ordinary” childhoods in Los Angeles very often invovle someone speaking Spanish, but I will not make that argument.
Nor will I even argue that she had an ‘ordinary’ childhood although I remain unsure about exactly who does.
‘Privilege’ is something else.
‘Privilege’ is a judgment.
‘Privilege’ is an opinion.
‘Privilege’ is an accusation.
‘Privilege’ remains an area to which – when I think of what she endured when I consider what came later – I will not easily cop.”
This excerpt through me off kilter permanently and it was difficult to enjoy the rest of Didion’s work, despite how talented and chiseled she is with language.
I was bothered by her use of the word “alien.” How she passed by Arcelia like a decorative ornament on the walls of a corridor in one of her many homes. I was bothered by her audacity to deny white privilege and class privilege and write them off as judgments, accusations, and opinions. You cannot deny privilege because of mental illness. That’s not the way that works.
Yes – Quintana was dealt a difficult hand biologically, but you cannot deny the privilege she experienced with two affluent, well-connected, white artists as adoptive parents.
We’re talking about two individuals (Joan and her husband) who were successful in Hollywood in the 60’s and 70’s. Does she have any awareness of what was happening in the rest of the country during that time? Does she care?
I suppose most people are selfish in that way. Only looking at their immediate lives from which to draw inspiration and stories. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope that I’m wrong. Someone that has read more of her work, please convince me otherwise.
There is a lot of tragic beauty in this novel if you are willing to dig – if you are willing to ignore some subtle cultural and racial inconsistencies.
Didion writes masterfully about motherhood, adoption, mental illness, grief, human frailty, and mortality. I will give her that. I give this book three out of five stars and will likely put off reading more of her work unless someone HIGHLY recommends it.