About halfway through writing Blue Nights, her enchanting evocation of the life of her daughter, Quintana, Joan Didion stopped cold. The book was a portrait of Quintana from her birth and adoption in 1966 to her 2005 death following a massive brain hematoma in New York Hospital. But there were parts of Quintana’s story that Didion did not want to tell.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to finish this, I don’t have to finish this book,’” she tells me as we sit in her Upper East Side living room one afternoon drinking tea from flowered cups. The room is deliciously crowded with books, photographs, and mementos—things Didion once treasured for the memories they evoked. “In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment,” she writes in the book. “In fact they only serve to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.”
Didion decided to return her advance to Alfred A. Knopf and abandon the book, which is titled after the long blue twilights of spring. “I thought, ‘I can just give the money back,’” she explains. Her agent and friend Lynn Nesbit suggested that she finish the book first and then talk about whether to publish it. Other friends urged her on. Didion tells me she finally looked at her book contract and saw how much she would have to return. “I could have bought an apartment with it,” she says. So she went back to writing the book.
In the book, Didion was telling the mythic story of a beloved princess blessed with beauty, wit, and talent; she was avoiding the moment when a malevolent fate descends like a bad fairy to collect on a curse put on the beautiful young child. Quintana was not at a spinning wheel when it happened, or biting into a poisoned Honeycrisp; the news came by FedEx. An already fragile 32-year-old, Quintana discovered that her mother, who had given her up for adoption, had later married her biological father and had two more children, whom she kept. “On a Saturday morning when she was alone in her apartment and vulnerable to whatever good or bad news arrived at her door, the perfect child received a Federal Express letter from a young woman who convincingly identified herself as her sister,” Didion writes. Didion doesn’t blame the biological sister, who had hired a detective to find Quintana; she doesn’t have to.
Before this discovery and Quintana’s disturbing reunion with the clueless sister and the mother who had abandoned her, Didion, husband John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter had led a charmed life. In the summer of 2003, Quintana married Gerald Michael in a glorious celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Within a few months, Quintana fell ill, first with the flu and then pneumonia, and soon the family slid into an unimaginable cascade of tragedy and loss. After a visit to an unconscious Quintana in the hospital, Dunne died of a heart attack on the night of Dec. 30, 2003. Quintana partially recovered and then faltered again, and finally stopped breathing in 2005. Didion, who wrote about her husband in her bestselling 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, had lost her child less than two years after her husband’s death.
“I was thinking today about the time we ran into you in Tours,” Didion says now. My husband and I had bumped into Joan, John, and the gorgeous teenage Quintana at a swimming pool in France’s Loire Valley. We ate garlicky escargot and drank a crisp white wine at a long table in a mirrored dining room, surrounded by the friends who seemed to materialize wherever they traveled. They acceded to Quintana’s requests to go to a party in town with a boy she had met at the pool. They were authoritative but sympathetic. In my family, being a writer was a last-ditch profession that went along with perpetual humiliation and habitual poverty. Didion and Dunne were glamorous and confident—more like movie stars than writers.
Quintana’s adoption was not a secret. Didion’s beautiful friend Diana Lynn had been told that she was adopted when she was 21—her parents had dispatched a Hollywood agent to tell her over lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Nothing like that would happen to Quintana. Didion and Dunne knew, of course, that a discovery of their daughter’s biological parents might happen, but when it did “it seemed too late, not the right time,” Didion explains in the book. “There comes a point at which a family is, for better or for worse, finished… Of course I had considered this possibility. Accepting it would be something else.” Didion knew that her daughter’s biological family lived in Tucson, Ariz., and when she, Dunne, and the young Quintana were in that city to shoot a movie, she made sure there was no mention of their presence in the press. “I believed as I did so that I was protecting both Quintana and her mother,” Didion writes. “I tell you this now by way of suggesting the muddled impulses that can go hand and hand with adoption.”
Didion’s prose is orderly, brassy, and very funny. She deadpans that it was a good thing to have black snakes drop into her convertible from the roof of the garage because that meant there were no rattlesnakes in the convertible. At physical therapy in Manhattan, she is inspired by the amazing progress made by her fellow patients: later she discovers that these “patients” are the New York Yankees, loosening up between games. The book’s startling details and incantatory repetitions make this tragic story as compelling as a thriller—a thriller about being a mother.
“Once she was born I was never not afraid,” Didion writes—a feeling known to all parents. She excoriates herself for not listening, for failing to pay attention, for not knowing what to do when Quintana’s first tooth was wiggly loose. “Only later did I see that I had been raising her as a doll,” she writes. Didion is haunted by her daughter’s childhood sorrows. “Let me just be in the ground,” Quintana sobbed, “let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.” But what might have been passed off as a childhood tantrum, what I and many parents certainly might have passed off as a childhood tantrum, becomes a powerful refrain of abandonment and despair. Let me just be in the ground. Let me just be in the ground and go to sleep.
This is a book about how little we know each other, how little understanding there can be even between a parent and her beloved child. Looking backward, Didion sees many of what might be taken as childhood problems, the slips and slides of motherhood, as harbingers of the dreadful future. Why didn’t I pay more attention, she asks, why wasn’t I listening? Why didn’t I hear what my daughter was really saying?
Didion refuses the cheesy fix of redemption. We live in a culture based on upsides. There is no knee-jerk upside in this book. Loss is grief, worry, insomnia, shingles, weeping, and just plain needing someone who is no longer there. Late in the book, she mentions a night when the glamorous hotel-hopping Didion-Dunne family, ensconced on the plane from Hawaii to Los Angeles, discovers that Quintana’s beloved, ever-present stuffed animal Bunny Rabbit has been left behind in their room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. It’s every parent’s nightmare. Bunny Rabbit has been abandoned—and it is too late to go back. To console her grieving daughter, Didion quickly, brilliantly spins a tale of happy redemption for the stuffed rabbit. Bunny Rabbit is living like a king. He is probably ordering room-service breakfasts and swimming off the raft. Quintana joins in to transform Bunny Rabbit’s cruel fate into Bunny Rabbit’s good luck. Oh yes, Bunny Rabbit is having a fine old time back there at the Royal Hawaiian. That’s the fairy tale. That’s the story that makes the unbearable bearable. This book is the real story.