On a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, a seven-year-old is mesmerised by Georgia O’Keeffe’s huge painting, “Sky Above Clouds IV”. She stares for a long time before asking: “Who drew it?” Then, she turns to her mother and whispers: “I need to talk to her.”
The enchanting little girl was Quintana Roo and her mother Joan Didion, who recounted the incident in The White Album (1979), a book that cemented her reputation as one of the greatest American non-fiction writers. Quintana is a happy presence here – “a child of paradise in a frangipani lei,” as she is described in one memorable essay on Hawaii.
“July 26, 2010. Today would be her wedding anniversary,” are the opening lines of Blue Nights. Didion remembers how she and Quintana shook the water from the leis her daughter had wanted instead of bouquets for her wedding at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York.
As in a novel by Márquez, this back-to-front beginning is an intimation of the sadness that will follow. In December 2003, Quintana’s garden-variety flu ballooned into septic shock. She would spend months in the intensive care unit of a New York hospital. After visiting her on December 30, while her mother prepared a salad for dinner, her father, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, had a fatal heart attack.
Quintana would recover the following year and attend her father’s memorial. Days later, on a trip with her husband to California to show him the Malibu of her childhood, she collapsed, having suffered bleeding in the brain. She eventually died in August 2005 at the age of 39.
By then, Didion’s memoir about her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness was already at the printers. The Year of Magical Thinking was simultaneously a tender love-song about her husband and her daughter and an angry indictment of western society’s inability to deal with grief. Nobody tells you, as Didion put it, that you go crazy when a loved one dies.
What would have been Quintana’s seventh wedding anniversary prompts a stream of reminiscences. Didion recounts that she was in the shower when Dunne told her that a doctor had just called to say there was “a beautiful baby girl” up for adoption. She burst into tears.
When Quintana was five, her parents came home one night to find she had called the nearby psychiatric facility to enquire what she should do if she were going mad. A year or so later, the bemused couple discovered she had called 20th Century Fox to ask what she needed to do to become a star.
Quintana, as an adopted child, worried about abandonment: what would have happened if Dunne and Didion had not been home when that all-important phone call came, she asks. What would have happened to her if they had had an accident on their way to picking her up from the hospital?
Didion, a worrywart even in happy times, obsessed about things happening to her daughter. “All adoptive parents fear that they do not deserve the child they were given, that the child will be taken from them. Quintana. Quintana is one of the areas about which I have difficulty being direct,” Didion writes. Blue Nights is searingly honest about the extended nightmare of losing a child, but also uneven. There is a staccato quality to some of the writing, and a chapter mostly about how children today are mollycoddled seemed out of place.
Didion somehow summoned the detachment she is renowned for in The Year of Magical Thinking. To expect her to pull off a masterpiece twice is to ask too much. Didion, after all, lost her husband and only child within 18 months. Quintana’s husband, Gerry Michael, lost his first wife some years before. How does anyone make sense of these devastating twists of fate?
Quintana, Didion recounts with pride, dissuaded her from reading WH Auden’s nihilistic lament, “Funeral Blues”, at her husband’s memorial. Years before, she had told her mother her own view of grieving. “When people die, don’t dwell on it,” she said simply. It’s hard not to when you lose people who mean the world to you, yet good advice all the same. Time may not always heal, but it adds perspective of a sort.
Blue Nights, by Joan Didion, Fourth Estate, RRP£14.99, 188 pages