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Book of the Week: Blue Nights
Every week, we'll be letting you know about new releases the editors at O and Oprah.com couldn't stop reading. On sale tomorrow, the memoir...
by Joan Didion
Blue Nights does what memoirs can do best: illuminate a crucial portion—and not the entirety—of a human life. In this case, prose master Joan Didion focuses on her relationship with her daughter, Quintana Roo, who she adopted in the late 1960s. Quintana grew up in the rarefied world of Malibu and movie-making. Despite the advantages—the closets full of Liberty lawn dresses, the bassinet from Saks—she struggled with the discovery of her biological parents, grappling with mental issues known collectively as "borderline personality," and using alcohol as a way to cope. Her struggle to recover from brain surgery was covered in Didion's previous book The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir that examined the extraordinary and excruciating loss that Didion suffered when her husband died and Quintana was hospitalized for many months. Blue Nights picks up a few years later after Quintana too has died. The lens of the story is less jaw-dropping in terms of fast-moving, tidal-wave events—and that is its power.
By concentrating on her daughter's life instead of her death, Didion examines her role as her a parent: what she caught, what she missed, what she caught and misinterpreted. She is relentlessly truthful, admitting for example that at Quintana's christening, "I actually believe that somewhere between frying the chicken to serve on Sara Mankiewicz's Minton dinner plates and buying the Porthault parasol to shade the beautiful baby girl...I had covered the main 'motherhood' points." As Quintana grows up, developing some charming if disturbing eccentricities, say, diagnosing herself with cancer when she really has chicken pox or calling an mental hospital to see if she can check in, Didion is not afraid to ask, "Did we demand that she be an adult? Did we ask her to assume responsibility before she had any way of doing so?" It is a courageous thing to look at how you have behaved as a mother, to question this in retrospect. What comes through, however—not despite of, but because of Didion's brutal self-examination—is the intense and singular love she had for her daughter. Yes, this is a book about aging and about loss. Mostly, though, it about what one parent and child shared—and what all parents and children share, the intimacy of what bring you closer and what splits you apart. "I know that I can no longer reach her. I know that should I try to reach her... should I lull her to sleep against my shoulder, should I sing her the song about Daddy gone to get the rabbit skin to wrap his baby bunny in—she will fade from my touch," say Didion. "Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her."
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Correction: When this piece was first published we incorrectly stated that The Year of Magical Thinking chronicles Didion’s experience after Quinana's death. The Year of Magical Thinking includes Quintana’s illness, and Blue Nights begins after Quintana's death.
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