Bookmarks Issue: 
Joan Didion

A-Blue NightsSeventy-six-year-old Joan Didion, an eminent American novelist and essayist, began her writing career as a promotional copywriter at Vogue. Her National Book Award–winning memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking (4 of 5 Stars Selection Jan/Feb 2006), intimately describes her grief after the death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003.

The Topic: Twenty months after she lost her husband to a heart attack, Joan Didion's only child, 39-year-old Quintana Roo Dunne, succumbed to complications from pancreatitis. Adopted by the couple in March 1966 and named after a state in southeastern Mexico, Quintana enjoyed a glamorous, celebrity-filled lifestyle with her jet-setting parents. However, the pampered and petted child began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness at a young age and continued to suffer from mood swings, anxiety, and depression throughout adulthood. "Was I the problem?" Didion groans, questioning her maternal skills. "Was I always the problem?" Part memoir and part rumination on parenthood ("the enigma of pledging ourselves to protect the unprotectable"), aging, and loss, Didion relives moments both joyful and agonizing in this melancholy supplement to The Year of Magical Thinking.
Knopf. 208 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780307267672

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"In this memoir of her daughter's death and her own aging, Didion has given us life, her own and her daughter's, and an earlier time, re-created with words and details artfully--even musically--arranged. If this book at times reeks of privilege, it also reeks of pain." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Didion's heartbreaking new book, Blue Nights, is at once a loving portrait of Quintana and a mother's conflicted effort to grapple with her grief through words: the medium the author has used throughout her life to try to make sense of the senseless. It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time." Michiko Kakutani

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The new book, no less than its predecessor, is honest, unflinching, necessarily solipsistic and, in the way of these things, self-lacerating: Did she do her duty by her daughter, did she nurture her, protect her, care for her, as a mother should? Did she, in a word, love her enough? ... Blue Nights, though as elegantly written as one would expect, is rawer than its predecessor, the ‘impenetrable polish' of former, better days now chipped and scratched." John Banville

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At times the book has the feel of a fractured emotional travelogue, as Didion empties an overstuffed suitcase of the unspoken. ... It's a frank and unflinching book that offers little warmth as the blue nights pass and winter approaches." Andrew Dansby

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Blue Nights is poignant and honest, but I would have liked to know more of Quintana. She is almost veiled by name-dropping: the theater and literary and movie people who were friends of her parents, the names of upscale hotels and restaurants." Betsy Willeford

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This book is unlikely to resonate as The Year of Magical Thinking did--the story it tells is less focused and less universal. ... Still, the potency of her prose remains in place as Ms. Didion, determined to avoid pat conclusions or easy salves for the anguish she feels, confronts the passing of her daughter and her own aging. The book that results is raw and unsettling, a meandering [meditation] rather than a polished version of events." Clare McHugh

USA Today 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite writing that is lovely and wrenching, it is disappointing. ... Blue Nights is less focused [than its predecessor]. It's filled with unanswerable questions. It's less about Quintana ... than it is about Didion's growing sense of frailty." Bob Minzesheimer

Critical Summary

"One of the most astute observers and skilled chroniclers of her time" (Kansas City Star), Didion has composed a powerful and sincere exploration of grief as well as a mournful meditation on old age and the transience of life. In elegant prose that throbs with pain and self-doubt, Blue Nights covers much the same emotional ground as The Year of Magical Thinking, but, notes USA Today, the comparisons are not entirely fair: whereas the earlier book celebrated her husband's life, Blue Nights focuses more closely on Didion and her growing infirmities than on her daughter. Other critics were put off by Didion's meandering focus and constant name-dropping. Nevertheless, Didion's searing account of her daughter's life and untimely death will likely resonate with readers, even though, as the Miami Herald notes, "Grieving is not a team sport."