In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion movingly chronicled the life, death and the emotional aftermath of her husband, John Gregory Dunne's, passing. While writing and describing going through that trauma, she also elaborately detailed the medically complex vortex and odyssey that her only daughter, Quintana Roo, was in, a journey that led to a plethora of hospital stays and an assortment of medical judgements that put Joan Didion-as her concerned mother-on a yo-yo ride of despair, optimism, confusion and delusion.
In Blue Nights, Joan Didion now recounts and reflects on her deceased daughter's life, starting off with her adoption and then gradually into her formative years and adulthood. Intermixed with those reflections is Didion's own life, what she and John Gregory Dunne were doing when the idea and the eventual success of the adoption of Quintana Roo came through. She also chronicles what they subsequently did after she became a member of their family, and in my opinion, that little girl certainly led an exciting and fun life. Above all else, though, she was thoroughly loved, and that truth is quite evident in Blue Nights. Beside the travels and hotel stays and fascinating people whom they knew and came across, Joan Didion also reflects abundantly on her daughter's thinking, her worries about what it meant to be an adopted child or if they failed to get her, the biological parents wanting to take her back, the newness of suddenly becoming a mom. The latter two were Joan Didion's fears, however. In Blue Nights, everything in the author's mind seems to be unearthed, the restraint loosened to a considerable degree. What I found to be really moving, however, was not so much all the bad stuff that was happening to them as a family and Joan Didion in particular, but rather, the reflection and meaning behind it all. Joan Didion doesn't laboriously muse upon death and dying, per se, but she doesn't gloss over the steps leading to it, either. She contemplates honestly and with full depth and streamlined clarity on her own frailty and medical conditions and her loss of interest in materialistic things that in the grand scheme of it all was never really important to begin with. They had their place, indeed, but never on the top tier of what mattered most. And what mattered most to Joan Didion was her husband and daughter, because the two of them, while alive (and even after death), were and are the catalysts to who Joan Didion was and is, i.e. a stellar writer, journalist, truth teller (as she sees it), traveler and so much more. I think Joan Didion would always have been a writer, but to what caliber would she have risen to if John Gregory Dunne and Qunitana Roo were not a significant part of her life and intellectual development? That can be applied to any person in life who influences, which, essentially, is all of us, for we all have our own degree of that power, good, bad or indifferent.
While I did enjoy The Year of Magical Thinking and thought it to be worthy of its winning the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nomination, I found Blue Nights to be even better, more probing of the human self, the confrontation of the unpleasant but yet the ever present. I wonder if this was a cathartic or painful book for Joan Didion to write? Perhaps it was both, matching both feelings to the realm of the living and the dying. For anyone who has ever suffered loss and its aftereffects, I think The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights would be a moving and insightful two volume collection for any person to have. The truth of reality does hurt sometimes, but if it is confronted honestly, there is that gossamer maintenance of control that remains, that dignity; even bigger than that, however, is the understanding of something bigger than us, whether we like it or not or believe in it or not. It is there. A powerful read.
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About the reviewer
Christian Engler (mfbiwap123)
I am a writer who loves books.
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