By Joan Didion
Read June 2019
A wonderful aspect of being in a book discussion group is reading things you might not otherwise read. One discussion group to which this reader belongs occasionally has its monthly meeting discussion books chosen by the reader based on some sort of assignment. The assignment that brought me to this book was “A book with either “blue” or “blew” in the title.” So this reader put “blue*” into the search engine for the library consortium, to which the sponsoring library is a member, to see what the search would reveal. As expected—A LOT of potential possibilities books. As this reader worked through the descriptions of a variety of books, the title of this book first provided a source of pause. Blue is this reader’s favorite color and is a delightful favorite as the sky provides a whole palette of blues to enjoy. The period of twilight dissolving completely into night provides a specific blue palette that is especially remarkable. The author’s name for this book was Joan Didion, an author this reader read years ago and enjoyed much for her remarkable language although not a single specific book title read could be recalled. No worries. The book was requested and delivered.
Upon opening the book, the first paragraph totally engaged this reader with her description of blue nights—apparent in New York (City) (where she now lives) but not in subtropical California (where she lived for much of the time described in the book). “You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors.” Although this reader has not been to Chartres nor seen radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors, this reader knows that blue. She continues “During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.”
Thus Didion sets the stage for this book. Although some references and critics describe the book as an account of the death of her daughter, at age 39 and only twenty months after the abrupt death of her husband of a heart attack, there frankly isn’t really an account of her daughter’s death. Rather there are short descriptions of aspects of her life with her daughter—getting a call for her adoption, the party celebrating her official adoption, taking her on various work trips, and others. She recounts several times hearing a group of doctors on rounds indicate the vent her daughter is on is no longer able to provide the patient sufficient oxygen There are descriptions of fears she experienced during her daughter’s life (generally the ones all parents fear regarding injuries, losing them in a crowd, etc), fears she now experiences that are much more difficult (why didn’t she understand what her daughter might had been saying at various times, why didn’t she realize that her daughter would have the abandonment fears that adopted children often experience, etc), and the fear that she will lose her memories of her. . As well Didion discusses her concerns about aging which she now realizes is now occurring: the loss of physical capabilities, the increasing neuropathies that hamper her senses and impair her mobility, and especially her cognitive capabilities that are apparent in the act of writing: “What if the absence of style that I welcomed at one point—the directness that I encouraged, even cultivated—what if this absence of style has now taken on a pernicious life of its own? What if my new inability to summon the right word, the apt thought, the connection that enables the words to make sense, the rhythm, the music itself— What if this new inability is systemic? What if I can never again locate the words that work?” “I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness. I see it differently now. I see it now as frailty. I see it now as the very frailty Quintana feared.”
The book describes Didion’s raw thoughts and fears, some which are newly understood but had always there, some newly exposed and only evident when one reaches that certain point of the blue night. Don’t read this book to learn about Quintana’s death. Read this book to hear a wonderfully articulate author describe what she is experiencing as both a result of losing a daughter and as a result of realizing her summer is ending.