I read Blue Nights much as I had read The Year of Magical Thinking five years, or was it six years, earlier. Quickly, in one gulp, in one night, racing through the pages as if lingering over them too long would singe my fingers. As I was reading this latest book I remembered sitting cross-legged on the floor at the bottom of the Seattle Public Library auditorium, practically at Joan Didion's feet, as she read aloud and talked about The Year of Magical Thinking, five or six years ago. I can hear her voice, even now, dry and flat like the California desert, like a piercing, dusty wind. I thought about Didion's voice, and the words of her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. He had this to say about their daughter, in the novel that was not really a novel: My only child was adopted and there was no chance that anything produced by my genes could come close to equaling her.* I have occasionally wondered whether my parents ever thought the same about me.
I was born in China in July of 1980 and adopted when I was six months old, perhaps earlier. (I am a little unclear about all the details, which were imparted to me when I was too young to understand them). Then I was raised by my mother's grandmother (and assorted aunts and cousins) in Shanghai until all the immigration paperwork was completed and I could join my parents in the United States. This took another year or so. The first photographs of us as a family are of my parents holding me in the Forbidden City in Beijing when I am about a year and a half old. They must be about 32 or 33. They look startlingly young and a little bit nervous about what the future holds, but then all early photographs of parents with their children look like that, whether the child is one hour old or eighteen months. They are the only parents I have ever known, and the only ones I can remember, and that is all I have to say about that. I rarely think about those two years between my birth and my second birthday party at Clayton Child Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and I even more rarely talk about them. This is not so much out of shame or a life-long identity crisis, but more of a lack of interest. Or inertia.
Blue Nights is, in a way, harder for me to read than The Year of Magical Thinking. It hit too close to the bone, in some places. I did not know, when I read the first book, that Quintana Roo Dunne had been adopted. I did not know that Joan Didion was 31 the year she was born. So were my parents. My mother, like Didion, is a tiny woman, slender-boned and with a sort of careless yet impeccable style, and my parents worked together for nearly 25 of the 37 years they have been married (although they are scientists and not writers). They had - and still have - a relationship that was impenetrable to me; their marriage felt separate from our family. Perhaps this is how it should be, but as an only child the life is sometimes lonely. I am told by people with siblings that for them, it isn't necessarily different, or even less lonely; this is a reminder that you never really understand something unless you've lived it.
The hardest chapters of Blue Nights, for me, are 22 and 23. I never feared or believed that I would be abandoned by my parents the way my birth parents had abandoned me. I never feared or believed that my birth mother would find me; my adoption had been privately arranged - this was the early 1980's, before overseas adoptions were common - and an ocean and continent separated us. My name had been changed, which I didn't know until a few years ago, when I found the documents; the possibility that I had had another identity had never occurred to me. My birth certificate had been re-issued by the state of Missouri. I was not concerned about biological family histories for health reasons; I had some blithe confidence that medical science would be able to determine such things by the time I was old enough to need it. I had none of Quintana's fears or doubts or questions or dreams about The Broken Man, or if I did I have long forgotten them. They were lost to my childhood along with all the monsters that lurked under the bed. Didion reminds me that maybe, they are still there, waiting for me.
*Dunne, John Gregory. Vegas. Warner Paperback Library, 1975. p15.