Joan Didion

Blue Nights

  • This summary of Blue Nights includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Blue Nights Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Blue Nights by Joan Didion.

Blue Nights is a 2011 memoir by American author Joan Didion chronicling the unexpected death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana, at age thirty-nine in 2005, and her grieving process thereafter. The work is also a meditation on the nature of life and death, suggesting, in the work’s most famous quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Didion’s attitude towards the limiting conditions of human life and the process of grief is not very optimistic; she argues that grief corresponds to the fundamental meaninglessness of nature. Blue Nights resonates with Didion’s earlier memoir about her husband’s hospitalization and death, The Year of Magical Thinking. The work is especially famous for its insights on aging and parenthood and is widely considered one of the great contemporary American memoirs.

At the beginning of her memoir, Didion explains why she chose the title “Blue Nights.” She recalls the day of Quintana’s wedding as a singular moment that she now remembers as the first “dying of the brightness” before a series of unfortunate events befell her family. She had no way of knowing that within a year, her husband would die and that before another had passed, her daughter would die. Didion recalls the earlier sudden death of her friend Natasha Richardson. At the time, Didion thought that young people were immune to such tragedies, or at least should be immune based on some natural law. She quickly started to understand that that argument was baseless.

Looking at Quintana’s life through the objects she left behind after her death, Didion observes that they seem to create a portrait of loss rather than a celebration of life. She feels that she is only able to recall Quintana’s negative experiences: her depression, anxieties, and fears. After lamenting her daughter’s death at length, Didion turns to death more abstractly. She writes that her own struggles with grief are not unique: humans are ill-equipped to deal with illness, aging, and death.

Didion also looks back on the years in the 1960s when she first met Quintana. She and her husband adopted Quintana shortly after getting married. At first, she was unsure how to make Quintana feel secure as part of the family, since she dealt with a severe fear of abandonment due to the absence of her biological parents. Back in the present, Didion realizes that this fear was quite similar to the fear she feels about losing Quintana.

Didion characterizes young Quintana as a vibrant and intelligent girl who was also uncannily mature for her age. She does not know whether her maturity came from her and her husband’s parenting, or from another source. This uncertainty gives her an ambivalent outlook on the common endeavor to measure whether one’s parenting has been “successful.” Didion also reflects on her own aging. She relates that she now feels physically and mentally weaker as she nears her eighth decade of life. Yet, she feels unable to isolate exactly what parts of this process scare her. She is constantly surprised that she is so old, and her childhood seems to have happened just moments ago.

Shortly before writing the memoir, Didion suffered her own hospitalization experience after a fall at home. When she was discharged, she suffered anticipatory anxiety and depression related to her inevitable death. To feel better, she focused on her work as a writer. She ends her memoir by reflecting on the void left by Quintana in her absence. When her doctor asked her to write down an emergency contact, she almost wrote her name out of instinct. Didion concludes that her main source of fear in old age is not a fear of what she has already lost; it is the knowledge that she will one day lose everything.