I finished reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights over the weekend and have been trying to decide my thoughts on it in the context of reviews I’ve read. The reviews have been a mixed lot, everything from high praise to the suggestion that the book should never have been published.
There is not much disagreement as to the quality of the writing. Didion’s classic style shines in this memoir of grief over the death of her daughter Quintana (occurring just months after the death of her husband John, which was the focus of her previous The Year of Magical Thinking) as well as grief over her own aging.
"You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue....The French call this time of day, “l’heure bleue.’ To the English, it was ‘the gloaming,’ The very word ‘gloaming’ reverberates, echoes--the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour--carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come.”
The negative reviews have taken issue more with the book’s substance. If this is the literary’s icon’s last book (and it may not be), is it a sufficient last word such that it proves the substance of the icon as she has been regarded all these years? Does it show a life well lived? Does it show depth of thought and feeling? Is there evidence of spiritual awareness? Does it show wisdom born of experience and knowledge?
What struck me most, however, as I closed the book was how deeply sad was this woman who wrote it, that despite the degree to which we have revered her writing, this icon is really just a person laid bare. Joan is on my mind now more than the book.