Joan Didion’s Blue Nights: Reflecting on the Brightness of Blue
The memoir Blue Nights is an elegiac, intimate meditation on the life of Quintana Roo Dunne Michael (1966-2005), Joan Didion’s (and the late John Gregory Dunne’s) adopted daughter. Didion’s reflections on her time spent with Quintana are cinematic: “She wove white stephanotis into the thick braid that hung down her back.” As Didion revisits and laments her daughter, “m’ija she was also called,” there are striking truths about motherhood, the mortality of one’s own children, and the failure of memories to give solace. “When I remember the ‘sundries’ I am forced to remember the hotels in which she had stayed before she was six or seven.”
To read Blue Nights is to drop into chic settings, terrifying conclusions, flickering fragments of mother and daughter, and to follow Didion’s way of navigating the void. If Didion cannot — through words — recover her daughter, she can bring her certain immortality, for Quintana’s words live on in Blue Nights: “Where did the morning went?” Perhaps most searing are the vignettes given to Quintana’s world; as an adopted child, there is much for her to ponder. Quintana once left a note for her parents: “Try to imagine the seductive sea if you can, love XX, Q.” Didion’s discoveries about herself as a mother seesaw between incredulity and humility. She knows how to humor, how to lay the ironies before us: the dresses she chose for the trip-never-taken to Saigon, the presence of the New York Yankees at her physical therapy sessions. We are also privy to relevant details of others who enter and exit their lives: Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Griffin Dunne, and Quintana’s biological sister.
There may never be a time when Didion does not hear her daughter “crooning back to the eight-track”: ““I wanna dance.” She does transcend a bardo-like stage of incapacitating grief into perhaps a more enlightened realm, where she shares the words circling her pain. Rarely sentimental, Didion recalls: “One day after she had asked me for a Magic Marker I found her marking off an empty box into ‘drawers,’ or areas meant for specific of these ‘sundries.’ The ‘drawers’ she designated were these: ‘Cash,’ ‘Passport,’ ‘My IRA,’ ‘Jewelry,' and, finally — I find myself hardly able to tell you this — ‘Little Toys.’”
Didion queries her own lament, and hears Quintana’s advice: “Like when someone dies, don’t dwell on it.” As her will to sustain a kind of heroic momentum falters, she nevertheless confronts the impermanence that dogs her. “Meanwhile, like Ntozake Shange, I memorize my child’s face.” How she writes about her relationship with Quintana is an inspiring, courageous achievement. In musical, almost metered prose, the words Didion summons are as present, bright, and deep as the nights are blue, the sharpest resolution of words and blue nights imaginable.
Tags:Blue Nights|Family|Joan Didion|John Gregory Dunne|Motherhood|Natasha Richardson|Quintana Roo Dunne Michael|Relationships|Vanessa Redgrave
Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.
From the Hardcover edition.