Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

This is another book I picked up in delayed response to New York Publishing’s relentless buzz machine. I’d heard enough about it over the past year or so to want to give it a shot. It’s a companion volume to Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking,  a memoir about the loss of her husband, but this one tackles her response to the death of the couple’s only child.

It’s an honest, probing memoir that makes no apologies for illegal alien housekeepers, Manhattan apartments big enough for 13 telephones or for the life of unbound privilege she and her husband gave to their adopted daughter (though she would quibble with you about the definition of ‘privilege.’) But there is also an undertone of lamentation and self-searching as she wonders whether her many choices as a mother constituted raising her daughter more like a doll than a little girl.

It’s not really our practice to comment on the parenting skills of an author, so I’ll tackle her prose instead. I’d never read Didion before (fiction or  non-fiction) and I have to say that the writing is quite beautiful. Didion undoubtedly has a wonderful way with words, but she has a tendency to repeat words and lists and phrases for rhetorical effect:

“Was I the problem? Was I always the problem?”
“Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes. Of course they were not allowed to remain just that, depths, shallows, quicksilver changes…”

Unfortunately, after the first couple examples, the only rhetorical effect it had on me was to make me groan in frustration. By the end of the book I was almost ready to throw things across the room. I came away thinking she needs to have a little more faith in her readers to follow along, draw the proper conclusions and link the related thoughts. 

As it is, I felt like I was being spoonfed each line, like I was being talked down to, and like she was putting on a writing clinic I really wasn’t interested in. Didion’s got some interesting things to say- I just wish she would say them and move on.

Anyway, that’s it. Admittedly short thoughts, but then it’s a pretty short book. I would definitely check out her other work, but I wasn’t exactly jazzed about this book. Anyone else read it?

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