In 2003’s Where I Was From, Joan Didion tells of a long wagon journey on which her great-great-grandmother buried a child, gave birth to another, contracted mountain fever twice, and sewed a quilt, “a blinding and pointless compaction of stitches,” that she must have finished en route, “somewhere in the wilderness of her own grief and illness, and just kept on stitching.” Throughout the book, Didion ruminates on her female forbears, women “pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew,” even their own dead babies.
It was Didion’s adopted daughter Quintana, at age five or six, who first made all this heredity start to seem remote. And if the author harbored any lingering doubt about whether she shared her ancestors’ breaking-clean tendencies, the shattering effect of Quintana’s death in 2005, at age 39, must have swept it away. In her new memoir, Blue Nights, about life before and after the loss of her daughter, Didion writes, “When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children.”
This book may be Didion’s harshest, most self-questioning book yet; it’s definitely her most beautiful. Like the stitches on her grandmother’s quilt, it covers the same material again and again, swooping down on its author’s grief with dogged, needle-like precision, from countless angles that don’t lead her anywhere soothing. “What if I fail to love this baby?” Didion worried as she carried the newborn Quintana home from the hospital. By the time of Blue Nights, the questions have changed. What if I didn’t love her right, the author interrogates herself. What if I didn’t love her enough?
Previously: Didion on psychiatric trends and diagnoses; the specter of the unanswered letter; “I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress”; and a short but revealing 1970 TV interview with Tom Brokaw.