- - Wednesday, January 4, 2012


By Joan Didion
Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 188 pages

In 2005, Joan Didion published “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a masterful and very sad account of her grief over the sudden death of her husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, on the second-to-last day of 2003. Now comes “Blue Nights,” yet another eulogy to yet another beloved family member, the couple’s only child, their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who died of cancer at age 39.

Throughout her long and accomplished career as a novelist, nonfiction writer, screenwriter and, most admirably, essayist, Ms. Didion has seldom (if ever) been called an optimist. But if ever she had just cause for the blues, to understate her emotions as reflected in this slim volume, it is in the loss of an only child within a year of the death of her husband.

In the first seven of the book’s 35 short chapters, Ms. Didion introduces the deceased daughter, beginning with a touching account of her wedding in the summer of 2003. The author-mother presents lovely, loving reminiscences, samples of the fascinating child who so captivated both of her parents.

Then, in Chapter 8, in a reversal of Wordsworth’s great ode “Intimations of Immortality”, in which he looks back from the vantage point of old age, Ms. Didion admits to having had, from the beginning, intimations of her daughter’s mortality.

For Quintana Roo - her parents saw the name on a map of Mexico, and it caught their fancy - was not emotionally healthy. She was afflicted with bipolar disease and an obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other problems.

As Ms. Didion writes, “Her depths and shadows, her quicksilver changes. Of course they were not allowed to remain just that, depths and shallows, and quicksilver changes. Of course they were eventually assigned names, a ‘diagnosis’ … I put the word ‘diagnosis’ in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a ‘diagnosis’ led to a ‘cure,’ or in fact to any outcome other than a confirmed, and therefore an enforced, debility.”

By the book’s one-quarter pole, the sadness has built to a point where Ms. Didion’s prose echoes the death-in-life tone of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Just a few pages later, she talks about the downside of adopting a child: “We omit the instant of the sudden chill, the ‘what-if,’ the free fall into sudden failure.” And then the author, in classic Didion fashion, delivers yet another devastating pronouncement when she dismisses the nostrum of positive memories.

” ‘You have your wonderful memories,’ people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not … . Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”

Ms. Didion has always been a superb observer, and from time to time along the way in “Blue Nights,” something catches her reporter’s eye, and the result is often, all by itself, worth the price of admission.

For example, when she herself falls ill, and her already tiny body gets smaller, her doctor tells her to eat more and to exercise. Eating does no good but, to her surprise, she loves doing exercise, which she does at Columbia Presbyterian’s sports medicine facility in Manhattan. She is impressed by the “strength and general tone of the other patients who turn up during the same hour” - until she learns “… these particular fellow patients are in fact the New York Yankees, loosening up between game days.”

The most powerful segment of the book is one in which Ms. Didion relates what happened as a result of her daughter’s receiving, totally without warning, a Federal Express - “Saturday delivery” - from a sister she never knew she had. Any adoptees or adopters should be forewarned: This is a cautionary tale. Nevertheless, “Blue Nights” is a testament to love, a sad and irretrievably lost love.

As many readers know, writer Dominic Dunne and John Gregory Dunne were brothers, often feuding brothers, but at the time of John’s and Quintana’s deaths, they had reconciled. Dominic’s poignant account of the dual family loss - “A Death in the Family” (Vanity Fair, March, 2004) - makes for fascinating reading, even years later.

• John Greenya is the author of “Blood Relations: The Exclusive Inside Story of the Benson Family Murders” (Harcourt, 1987).

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