Kind of Blue

By Amy EphronOctober 27, 2011

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

I'VE NEVER SEEN a blue night. They don’t have them in L.A. or as Joan Didion refers to it, “subtropical California.” But they do occur in New York “as April ends and May begins, a change in the season…” 

She goes on to say in the introduction to her new memoir Blue Nights:

The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming,” the glimmer, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows.

She has not lost her ability to turn a phrase into a lilting stanza that runs almost like a bass line throughout the book. The introduction ends with the sentence, “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.” I’m not sure I know what this means, but I hope I never see blue nights.

Blue Nights is not a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking, as much as it is an extension of it — the terrible two years after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, when her daughter (her somewhat famous daughter Quintana Roo, a name you could never forget, a name that in itself feels magical) fell into a kind of semi-conscious state induced by an infection that turned into septicemia (I think — it’s not really clearly exactly what occurred), except that it spiraled into a condition which resulted in Quintana Roo’s tragic, untimely death and the unthinkable state of a blue night. Or the unthinkable state of what occurs after a blue night wanes.

Relentless and riveting. Relentless — so that you are forced to put it down for a moment and walk away in the hope that you can stop yourself from the mood, so raw on the page that it infuses you. And then compelled to walk back because the voice is so powerful that it refuses to let its (or this) reader go.

It is horrible to see oneself die without children. Napoleon Bonaparte said that.

What greater grief can there be for mortals then to see their children dead. Euripedes said that. 

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

I said that.

And later in that same early chapter of Blue Nights, she repeats:

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

and adds:

I just said that but what does it mean?

I don’t know if I know what it means either, but I sort of know what she means. 


Writers often revisit themes in their work, refine plot lines, almost as if they’re dancers performing a more sophisticated version of an earlier piece, this time set to a slightly different tune. In Didion’s case, the reflections themselves, the easy passage of time from present tense to a recollection, have become an imbedded flagstone of her work. In A Book of Common Prayer andBlue Nights — both so much about reflection and memory — the themes are eerily similar. In retrospect, A Book of Common Prayer seems to be oddly prescient. Although told by a narrator, the protagonist’s best friend, it is the story of Charlotte Douglas, whose daughter Marin, her only child, has gone into hiding suspected of some kind of terrorism, and, despite Charlotte’s unflinching belief that she will somehow find her in Boca Raton, she will never see her again. Through the narration is Charlotte’s quest to understand what seems inexplicable to her, how she came to be where she is now, alone, having left her second husband, searching for her lost daughter as she hurtles into her own certain death. The memories that she tries to piece together — dressing her child for Easter, a remembered line, “Will I have braces in the fourth grade?” — seem to echo the harsh reality of Didion’s latest work.

I have a daughter who won’t go to The Grove, the outdoor, Vegas-style mall annexed to the old Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles, because the escalators, specifically the white steps of the escalators, the white-on-white, seem to her “too Didion,” as if the name alone has now become an adjective or an adverb. She is not my only daughter and I know where both my daughters are today, somewhere in what Didion calls subtropical California.

So, I understand why so much of it is understandably inexplicable. The state Didion found herself in after John’s death, compounded by the death of her daughter Quintana Roo, compounded by the sense of her own mortality and an illness that is as inexplicable, it seems, as all the others. Did I just use the word “inexplicable” more than once? I meant to. But as Didion finds herself unable, truly unable, to get up from a chair after a rehearsal of what will be Vanessa Redgrave’s star-turn dramatic rendition of The Year of Magical Thinking, it seems a perfectly reasonable reaction to the events that have preceded it. Frozen there. Not able to move. As if time has stopped. A condition that will be diagnosed as “Neuritis. Neuropathy. A neurological inflammation.”

And when she asks what causes it? The neurologist answers, “Not weighing enough.” But the reader wants to interrupt and say, “Really are you sure? Are you sure it isn’t sadness? Or having more thrown at you than you can bear?” 

The repetition of memories she recounts in the book, fragments of memory, memories that are difficult to summon, that come to her merely in fragments, as if she’s trying to piece them together to make them make sense, memories of the beautiful baby girl they adopted, memories of “subtropical California,” are a painful patchwork, as if she is also frightened that she will not be able to remember or not be able to remember the words one would use to describe a memory.

Time passes.” A phrase she repeats often. 

Time passes but not for me.” 

And then adds with a curious power as if the repetition itself is another bass line:

Time passes.

Could it be that I never believed it?

Did I believe the blue nights could last forever?


Like I said, I’ve never seen a blue night, and I hope I never will. But the power and the mood and the searing tonality of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights will resonate with me as if I had.

LARB Contributor

Amy Ephron is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her latest book, Loose Diamonds…and other things I’ve lost and found along the way, was published by William Morrow.


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