“There were cucumber and watercress sandwiches, a peach-colored cake from Payard, pink champagne...”
I've had a minor obsession with Joan Didion since I read "Where I Was From" about 8 years ago. It was the kind of thing where I immediately picked up all of of her (non-fiction) books and read them back to back. I loved The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem, and when it came out I devoured The Year of Magical Thinking - about the aftermath of the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne.
When I heard that Didion's only child had died at just 39 years of age right before Magical Thinking was released I was horrified and captivated. I searched for more information on Quintana. What on earth had happened to her? And how could Didion possibly cope with another loss so soon after her husband's death? For better or worse, these questions are answered in Blue Nights. Didion tells the story of Quintana's life - from their admittedly somewhat boneheaded handling of her adoption to her childhood in Malibu and Brentwood all the way through her illness and death - including her mental and emotional troubles and ill-fated contact with her birth family.
In recalling these events, Didion returns to certain evocative memories again and again. Quintana's wedding, with its peach colored cake from Payard, cucumber sandwiches and pink champagne, the stephanotis woven in her braid, the bright red soles of her Louboutins visible when she knelt at the altar. She recalls the fried chicken eaten from a friends' fancy plates to celebrate Quintana's christening, the Chanel suits the women wore and the cigarettes they smoked and the hotels they stayed in when they traveled - the Kahala and the Royal Hawaiian in Hawaii; the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, the Ambassador and the Drake in Chicago.
It was a life of privilege to be sure, but there is an appealing pared-down simplicity to it as well. When they lived on the beach in Malibu, they lit fires in the fireplace to heat their home, she packed homemade fried chicken and strawberries with sour cream and brown sugar in Quintana's lunches and they had cucumber sandwiches for Quintana's sixteenth birthday lunch. Didion always packed the same list of simple necessities when she traveled. These small but intentional details aren't so attributable to wealth as to taste - they're decisions and choices anyone could make.
Amid the shock and numbness of grief, Didion is eventually forced to confront her own mortality. She develops shingles, she loses consciousness in her apartment and wakes up in a pool of blood. A doctor accuses of her of making "an inadequate adjustment to aging." We might not all be so unlucky as to lose our entire family in the space of a few years, but if we live long enough, we will all get old. Didion writes about aging the way I expect to think and feel about it, which is both distressing and strangely satisfying, like seeing your worst fears come true. Unfortunately, she also confirms something else I've long suspected - that your cherished memories are not all that helpful when they serve primarily to remind you of what you have lost.
photo credits: Payard Cake from Martha Stewart, Blue Nights Cover from Amazon, Corvette photo via New York Magazine - Getty Images, shoes from Christian Louboutin, cucumber sandwiches via Victoria Mary Vintage, Didion's packing list from English Muse, family photo in Malibu via The New York Review of Books.