Joan Didion fashioned her riveting best-selling memoir The Year of Magical Thinking from material woven out of the sudden heart-attack death of her husband and screenwriting partner, John Gregory Dunne, in 2003 at the age of 71, and the concurrent dire illness of Quintana, their only child. Quintana, then a bride of five months, was in a coma when her father died, a crisis from which she would recover only to deteriorate quickly from catastrophes such as septic shock and pancreatitis. By the time her mother's book was published in 2005 (it was a finalist for the Pulitzer and won a National Book Award), Quintana too was dead. She was 39.
There is no magical thinking left at all, not a shred of it, in Blue Nights, Didion's ragged and self-pitiless slog back into the bowels of loss in memory of her daughter. ''The way I write is who I am, or have become,'' Didion explained in Magical Thinking, an exquisitely chiseled book built with passion and shaped by the author's raw need to keep up momentum as an escape hatch from grief. Now, in Blue Nights, she writes as a woman aged and broken by what she has endured these past several years. Her energy is gone. Her language, while still that distinctive Didion incantation of self-absorption and piercing perception, is variable. Her attention wanders from the memory of bridal flowers in Quintana's hair to reminiscences about fancy dinner plates in the home of fancy friends. To say that Blue Nights has little of Magical Thinking's polish is to state a fascinating, telling fact, not to offer a criticism. What wafts off the pages of this haunting memento mori are undistilled, profoundly human expressions of fatigue, fear, dignity, regret, and vulnerability that are almost but not quite under the author's control.
Most haunting of all may be Didion's essential bewilderment about motherhood in general, and her own daughter in particular. Quintana had been adopted by Didion and Dunne immediately after the birth of the ''beautiful baby girl'' in Santa Monica in 1966. ''She had no idea how much we needed her,'' writes Didion, who didn't know to buy a bassinet or baby clothes for the newborn. As Quintana grew up, Didion became accustomed to the girl's ''depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes.'' Later, those depths and shallows were replaced with a diagnosis: borderline personality disorder, exacerbated by drink. To the extent that Didion's work, while always emerging out of self-study, has a finger on a bigger cultural pulse, Blue Nights is a dark elegy to a certain California-ized, '60s-onward attitude toward parenting and its discontents.
The book, though, is also an unblinking study of the author's psyche in old age (Didion is 76). She is insistently coolheaded in assessing the accumulating frailties of a body that has always been bird-tiny. She panics because she can't lift herself out of a chair while watching a rehearsal of the Broadway adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. (Warrior-size Vanessa Redgrave played the child-size author.) Didion falls. She develops shingles. ''A doctor... suggests that I have made an inadequate adjustment to aging,'' she reports with a kind of impatience. ''Wrong, I want to say. In fact I have made no adjustment whatsoever to aging.'' Instead, as her body betrays her, she writes in order not to betray her soul. One of her favorite words in Blue Nights is bleed: gastrointestinal bleed, cerebral bleed. There is something blunter about bleed than bleeding. Blue Nights is Didion's bleed. B+