I was writing my monthly Book Review and after getting everything out about this book I felt like it deserved its own post.
Joan Didion is a beloved American author. I can admit that Blue Nights is only the third book I’ve read of Didion’s (I’ve also read The Year of Magical Thinking, and Play It As It Lays). And I actually want to go back and read both of those books again.
Didion is one of those authors that I want to understand on a deeper level. I want to read her books in order. What I mean by in order is in the order she wrote them. I did this a little with Hemingway (not all of his books, but some). I always wonder if by doing that (with any author) if that will unlock something about them in my brain. Or at the minimum, help me understand them better or at the least observe their evolution as an author.
Joan Didion seems to put into words moments that seem simple, but if we tried to explain them, to write them out in sentences, our words would be a blubbering mess. People don’t understand how hard it can be to get feelings down on paper in an eloquent manner. Didion captures her feelings with an ease. It feels like you are reading her diary. Blue Nights is mostly about losing her daughter.
In the book, she talks about how she no longer values the mementos from her family (mementos from her daughter and husband, both of which died). How “In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
Didion has an interesting take on memories. She said people would tell her that she had her “wonderful memories” as if memories were solace for her daughter’s death. She wrote, “Memories are not [solace]. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the Westlake uniforms in the closet, the faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
This made me think about memories and mementos differently. I’m not one to keep a lot of mementos that make me sad. I have one small box of what I consider memories and they are mostly photos. Every once in a while something will happen, a song will come on, I’ll smell something that makes me think of someone, and I’ll fight back tears of memories of people who are gone. Sometimes, I shed tears of emotion, knowing they had a long life and died without regrets (my grandfathers). Other times I shed tears with sadness when thinking of friends who died too young, feeling as though they missed out on so much they never got to experience. What benefit do these memories bring me? Do they help me stay grounded? Help me be more sympathetic? Help me unlock pent up emotion? I don’t know.
At one point Didion talks about changing her California driver’s license to a New York one, and she wondered why she was feeling certain ways about it. Was it a loss? A separation? I can actually completely relate to Didion on this. After living for 6 years in Washington, D.C., my husband and I bought a house right outside the city (the same house in the city would have cost $200k+ more!), and I didn’t want to give up my DC license for a Virginia one. To me, it felt like an ending to being a “city girl” and I knew once we left the city, I’d never get my husband back in it. I knew it was an end. My sacrifice was worth the pay off, but it did, and still pains me in ways.
Didion said once Quintana was born, she was “never not afraid”. It made me think, can you love a spouse as much as you love a child? I don’t have a child. Is the love just as powerful? If I never have a child, and my husband dies, will it hurt just as much as if I had a child and no spouse and my child died? Can you love people the same? Is the pain the same? Is the fear of my husband dying the same as the fear of a child dying? I may never know. I can tell you that I do know the devastation I’d feel if I did lose my husband. I almost did once, and it was wretched. But I may never know how it could compare to a child.
On the last page of the book, two lines were already highlighted when I bought the book (used):
The fear is not for what is lost.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
Have you read Blue Nights? Have you read much Didion? Please, tell me your thoughts in the comments.