I should preface this review by saying that I adore Joan Didion's writing. There really is no one better at cataloguing the social chaos and energy that defines a specific shot of history than her. I grew up in the California of the 1960s and 1970s, and if anyone asks me about those years, I point to her. Like most of her readers, I read with such sadness about the death of her husband and daughter, and finished her book The Year of Magical Thinking with such profound respect; she defined unfathomable grief with words.
Blue Nights—her ode to her daughter, Quintana—is also a well-written book, but when I finished it, I slapped it down on my dining room table with a rare sense of irritation. With most books there is you, the reader, who is, hopefully, at the mercy of the author. The author pulls you into their world. Generally, you don't pull them into yours. When that happens, a book sort of fails. I didn't get pulled into Joan Didion's world. As a parent, I couldn't help but pull her into mine, and the parent in me was snorting in disbelief and sometimes outrage. There is an underlying question throughout the whole book: was she a good enough parent? I can't really answer that question. It's a question that all parents ask themselves frequently, although usually not hand-in-hand with mourning a child's death (and, yes, this is the worst thing that can happen to a parent, bar none). But it's hard not to stare in disbelief when she comments that her daughter was terrified that her father would go first because then Quintana would be under the care and responsibility of her mother. Why wouldn't she be terrified? This is the same woman who felt it was perfectly acceptable to bring her infant to a reporting assignment covering the fall of Saigon. Who thought it appropriate in response to this assignment to go out and buy a bunch of designer clothes. And while this disconnect with reality is a trademark of hers, it might work for her persona as a writer, it fails when we consider her as a parent. As a writer, we might find it privately amusing that she would fly from Honolulu and arrive in Hartford when it was below zero without a sweater. When it’s her kid shivering, then it’s impossible to not judge her. The reader takes a back-seat to the parent.
Didion's detachment has always been her strength. But it's an odd detachment, which is why I think it works so well in her writing. Because it's the detachment of the walking wounded. Someone so battered by reality that detachment is the only way to survive. It's the detachment of someone trying to make sense out of the nonsensical. As a parent (and please don't assume that I think I'm a fantastic parent--merely adequate), I'm listening to her questioning her efficacy as a parent, and I feel like shouting, honey, it's not about you. That's what parenting is. It's not about you. Which seems manifestly unfair because her writing has always been about her and not about her. But you can't carry that sensibility into parenting. I read over these verbal snapshots of her life and marriage, and all I can think of was that Quintana never got to be a child. She’s described as being precocious in this book, but to me it feels like more of a coping mechanism. They may have loved her unquestionably, but the Dunnes went on location, stayed in swanky hotels, wrote their articles, movie scripts, and books, and dragged her along for the ride. She had to become an adult in a child’s body.
So much for the personal issues I had with this book. We come to the writing. The last third of the book is devoted to Didion’s sense that she is losing her ability to write. It's part and parcel of other physical frailties, but although the physical maladies are terrifying, they pale in contrast to the idea that she's losing her truly wonderful way of parsing words. That her style is becoming trite, that an ability to write so clearly about the lack of center is now suffering from not having its own center.
And while I can't say that her writing falls short (the beginning of this book is as masterful a beginning as I've ever read), there is a sense of, um, where's the editor? Her repetition of phrases and concepts that in previous works united a bunch of seemingly disparate events to create a fractured whole, now does seem something of a tic.
Another stylistic choice that seemed to dominate this book was, for want of a better word, product placement. And by that I mean it is never a pair of shoes, a hotel, a sweater; it's Laboutins, the Dorchester, cashmere. Truly, are we supposed to lament that Bendel's is no longer the same? Even people are nothing more than product placement. This actress, this director gave a speech at Quintana's wedding.
Part of the strength of Didion's work written in the 1960s and the 1970s is that the protagonists of her essays were no different than you or I, except that maybe they were part of Manson's family. And although that is a hell of a difference, in her hands it was also not a hell of a difference. A "there but for the grace of God" sensibility dominated. In her current work everyone has a name. A big name. Almost like these larger than life people had no right to up and die. Unlike you and me. Because we don't have names. It's unsettling at first and then becomes annoying. It undercuts the real issue in this book. The loss of her daughter. Does it really matter that she went to school with and had dinner at this restaurant with this Hollywood icon? It doesn't make her passing any more tragic, although there is the hint that she was special because of it. When in reality, she was special because she was so loved.
In the end I certainly would recommend this book because Joan Didion is one of the most thoughtful and fantastic writers of her generation, but Blue Nights doesn't have the strength of The Year of Magical Thinking. I think this is the most personal of her books (for obvious reasons), but it's also one of her weaker books, perhaps the inevitable fall out of the detached finally becoming attached with little to attach to.