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Blue Nights

Didion's devastating new memoir explores loss in all its forms, to powerful effect.

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Didion is oddly defensive about the question of “privilege.” It may not have been a conventional upbringing, but it sounds like the trio had a lot of fun. And who’s to say “Bambi” isn’t more scarring than the “Nicholas and Alexandra” screening Didion took her daughter to?

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“‘You have your wonderful memories,’ people said later, as if memories were solace,” Didion writes. “Memories are not.... Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”

Didion blames herself for many things: for not realizing the depth of Quintana’s fear of abandonment and for her own terror of not knowing what to do as a mother. “Once she was born I was never not afraid,” she writes, in what may be the book’s saddest sentence. When Quintana got her first loose tooth, her panicked mother nearly took her to the emergency room. “What I would not realize for another few years was that I had never been the only person in the house to feel the fear.”

One of the things Didion approaches obliquely is what she calls Quintana’s “depths and shallows,” which were diagnosed first as manic depression, then obsessive compulsive disorder, then something else Didion couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter, she writes, because that was soon replaced with another “diagnosis.” “I put the word ‘diagnosis’ in quotes because I have not yet seen that case in which a ‘diagnosis’ led to a ‘cure,’ or in fact to any outcome other than a confirmed, and therefore an enforced, debility,” writes Didion, who details her own bouts of ill health and inconclusive diagnoses in the book.

Frailty is a theme running throughout “Blue Nights.” In addition to Quintana, Didion writes about the death of Natasha Richardson, whom she had watched grow up. And she discusses the physical cost of “maintaining momentum” and her own growing shakiness. At one point, during rehearsals for the play of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she can’t bring herself to get up off a metal folding chair. Didion details days spent in hospital waiting rooms, trying to figure out who to put down as her emergency contact. She works on gaining weight and momentum. “Meanwhile ... I memorize my child’s face.”

Didion once famously wrote that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In “Blue Nights,” her aim is a poignant variant. She wanted to prove “that my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story.” Not by a long shot.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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