So today I have a piece out about Joan Didion’s latest book, Blue Nights, in which she talks about the life and early death, at age 39, of her adopted daughter, Quintana. And in which she DOESN’T talk about how Quintana’s alcoholism most likely ended her life.
I wrote the piece because I read the book and couldn’t get Quintana out of my mind. Her mother insists in the book that she was not “privileged.” Didion talks about 14-year-old Quintana learning from Natasha Richardson how to seduce college boys on “spring break” in St. Tropez. She talks about the Spanish-speaking Mexican maid saving Baby Quintana from a rattlesnake in the back yard while Didion herself tries to hide the maid’s presence from the state adoption social worker. She writes about the 60 batiste and lawn baby dresses hung in Quintana’s closet—dresses Didion counted over and over, to prove to herself, apparently, that she had the right equipment to be a mother.
I’m going to quote at length here. She was “not unaware,” she writes, that a number of readers
(more than some of you might think, fewer than the less charitable among you will think) would interpret this apparently casual information (she dressed her baby in clothes that needed washing and ironing, she had help in the house to do this washing and ironing) as evidence that Quintana did not have an “ordinary” childhood, that she was “privileged.”
I wanted to lay this on the table. …
Nor will I even argue that she had an “ordinary” childhood, although I remain unsure about exactly who does.
“Privilege” is something else.
“Privilege” is a judgment.
“Privilege” is an opinion.
“Privilege” is an accusation.
“Privilege remains an area to which—when I think of what she endured, when I consider what came later—I will not easily cop.
(Joan, come on: ALL baby clothes need washing. But not all of them need ironing.)
This is maybe the first time I’ve ever read Didion honestly being pissed off.
Most of the rest of the time, she’s pissed off, all right, but not honestly. It’s all hidden by style.
I think of all the years I’ve been reading Didion, studying her prose—I began reading her at 23, and I’m now 47. There were times, especially in my 20s and early 30s, when I’d lay her stuff down, feeling exhilarated at the sheer style and gorgeous intelligence of her writing—but also overcome by waves of despair and dread that I couldn’t explain. This book explains them.
I can see now that reading Didion was like hearing my mother talk: a brilliant stylist, a fascinating mind, a sparkling storyteller, and deeply angry and fearful underneath all that glitter.
That household was just like mine, after all: a plain old “ordinary” alcoholic family.
If you want to read an insightful review of Blue Nights, check out the piece in the London Review.