Sunday, December 11, 2011

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

"I just finished 'This Beautiful Life.' What did you think of it?" asked Rebecca.
"Um..." I stalled.
"It's on your blog list thing, isn't it?" she asked.
Fair enough.

Let me explain. Fall brought a glorious parade of rockin' authors to the circle city. Anita Diamant, Myla Goldberg, Richard Rodriguez, John Green, Lee Martin -- oh my God, it was enough to make a girl swoon! Fascinated by the literary line-up, I may have lost my way -- temporarily. Titles on my "Waiting to be Reviewed" list have languished since summer. So when Rebecca asked what I thought of "This Beautiful Life" -- a novel I finished before autumn's first chill -- all I could conjure was a faded feeling of vague disappointment.

Memory-refreshing is the order of the day, and the "Waiting to be Reviewed" titles are back on hold at the library for that very purpose. While my beleaguered brain struggles to recover plots (how shocking is it that these storylines are so easily lost?), with "Blue Nights" I'll start anew. After all, if Didion can't cut in the "Waiting to be Reviewed" line, who can?

Didion's newest memoir, "Blue Nights," explores her feelings about growing old, and the tragic death of her only child, her daughter, Quintana Roo. This, on the heels of the sudden and unexpected death of Didion's husband, John Dunne, an event that spurred her previous memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking."

Do I recommend "Blue Nights"? Absolutely. For God's sake, she's Didion -- sparkling prose, and an eye that doesn't for a moment shy away from brutal self-examination. Do I also have reservations? Well, yeah.

In "Blue Nights" Didion elegiacally examines her perceived motherly failings, her detachment. I couldn't help but find a parallel detachment in her memoir. Maybe anxiety's the issue -- something I know only too well. Anxiety tends to stain, darkening all other aspects of relationships. As an admittedly anxious mother writing about her relationship with an anxious child, Didion's worries are well explored, but her mother-daughter bonds -- not so much. I yearned to read about Didion's connection with Quintana, and hoped she would do so with the same unsparing prose she uses to chronicle the unease. Instead, Didion filled page after page with stories of celebrity friendships, and her literary jet set lifestyle. There's enough celeb name-dropping and discussion of designer labels to wean People Magazine and QVC from the most addicted fans.

In the end, though, I consider a book satisfying if it moves me. Leaves me feeling changed. And despite the annoying arm's-distancing Hollywood babble, "Blue Nights" succeeds.

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