The Family Album

What matters are the details. The 60 baby dresses on miniature wooden hangers, the loose pearls in a satin-lined jeweler's box, the bright red soles of the wedding shoes, the white stephanotis in the bride's braided hair. These specifics do not add up to a story; they are a compilation of the past, a messy collage of what used to be. Some are memories to be avoided, "reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted." Author Joan Didion's latest memoir, Blue Nights, is more journal than narrative, a meditation on grief and aging that jumps in time and place and sucks its readers into its fears and anxieties.

Blue Nights comes as the companion to the 2005 National Book Award winner A Year of Magical Thinking, another autobiography, in which Didion grapples with the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and with the long illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. In August 2005, Quintana, who was adopted at birth, died at the age of 39, just weeks before the book's October publication. Blue Nights is the aftermath, with the bitterness of Quintana's remark "Like when someone dies, don't dwell on it" echoing throughout.

The beginning is one of the book's most beautiful sections, the pages vintage Didion, characteristic of the way place figures in her writing: "In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue." Unlike in much of her other work, the setting in Blue Nights is ungrounding, symbolizing fleeting life. "I found my mind turning increasingly to illness," Didion writes, "to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning." This light occurs in New York but not in California, and Didion tries to bridge her family's life on the East Coast with their life on the West Coast, where Quintana grew up. New York seasons are distinct, and it is in Manhattan, as the blue nights fade, where Quintana dies.

But while Blue Nights captures concrete memories, it lacks the sharpness and rhythm, the searing sentences that define Didion's usual prose, and with its informal structure, it often forgets its readers. Passages feel dashed off, unpolished. The lyrical quality of her past books and essays—the confidence that no matter what, the words will sing and then strike home—is often missing. Some parts read as if Didion is working out the writing on the page, and other sections struggle with unclear antecedents, which is problematic when we are trying to keep straight all of Didion and Dunne's friends, the names of whom are too numerous to remember.

Didion, though, is acutely aware of this shift in style. She connects her technique in creating Blue Nights to the hard reality of growing older, writing that "aging and its evidence remain life's most predictable events, yet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, unexplored." She talks about being afraid a metal folding chair will collapse on her as she stands up from it and of having to ask a Hertz attendant to start her rental car: "I am seventy-five years old: this is not the reason I give." Maybe this sense of vulnerability and its effect on her style is the answer to why Blue Nights is written in the manner that it is. Of creating her previous works, Didion writes that she "supposed this process to be like writing music" and then acknowledges the change:

I have no idea whether or not this was an accurate assessment, since I neither wrote nor read music. All I know now is that I no longer write this way. … For a while I laid this to a certain weariness with my own style, an impatience, a wish to be more direct. 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.

Despite the tragic weight of this slim volume, Blue Nights is not without lighter moments. Didion relates several endearing stories, in one recalling Quintana's childhood "sundries": "She invested this word, which she used as a synonym for 'possessions' but seemed to derive from the 'sundries shops' in the many hotels to which she had already been taken, with considerable importance, dizzying alternations of infancy and sophistication." Didion writes that Quintana put these items into drawers labeled "'Cash,' 'Passport,' 'My IRA,' 'Jewelry,' and, finally—I find myself hardly able to tell you this—'Little Toys.'" Still, darkness lurks. In another anecdote, five-year-old Quintana calls the Camarillo psychiatric institute to "find out what she needed to do if she was going crazy." This episode seems to foreshadow a later chapter when Didion tells us that because Quintana was depressed and anxious, she drank too much. Listing Quintana's possible mental disorders, Didion refers to her daughter's "depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes" and says that Quintana could go from charm and composure to suicidal despair. While Didion searches these memories for clues to how she could have ultimately saved her daughter, she doesn't elaborate further on Quintana's depression and addiction, and leaves us wondering how these cryptic references compare to the larger reality.

Other key pieces are missing. Quintana's husband, Gerry Michael, is mentioned only a few times. Variations on one line—"She had no idea how much we needed her"—occur throughout, but as much as Didion reiterates this sentiment, we don't quite understand why, nor does Didion explain the decision to adopt a child except to say she wanted a baby. In one sentence, she talks about meeting with a doctor; in the next, he calls to tell Didion and Dunne about a baby girl they can adopt. Didion also never makes clear the cause of Quintana's death. It's as if Didion is not writing for an audience; she fixes on certain memories and details, and though we are inside her grief and recognize our own fears and pain in hers, we need more.

No matter its disappointments, however, Blue Nights succeeds in pulling us into its neuroses and tragedies, its collection of losses, which are not listed chronologically but circle around to the present in which Didion grieves for her husband and daughter and faces her own aging. We may yearn for her earlier technique to be executed again here, preserved and unchanging, but Didion is still the writer who gets at the truth behind her subject, offering up devastating lines of insight: "I tell you this true story just to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story."

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