One of the book’s great accomplishments is its intimacy, this sense that you are being let in on the secret to how Didion’s legendarily symbiotic relationship with Dunne actually worked—how they spoke to each other, how they worked together, what they argued about. When she decodes the family shorthand, it brings tears to the eyes because it is like an X-ray of the most private, precious thing of all: their love. In the end, the book is really a portrait of a very unusual, successful marriage. In one particularly moving scene, which took place on Didion’s birthday, just a month before Dunne died, he reads aloud to her from one of her own books, A Book of Common Prayer, as they sit by the fire on a snowy night. “Goddamn,” he said to her as he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”
Didion still smokes, though only five cigarettes a day and only at the typewriter. I mention this because when I ask if she reads her reviews, she says, “Of course I read them. It’s part of what you do. I think it would be almost impossible not to. It would be like not smoking—walking around not reading your reviews.” I cannot resist asking about the famously brutal Barbara Grizzuti Harrison takedown of Didion that was published in 1979. “I can still remember the first line,” she says, “because it was so far out of left field.” She then paraphrases, “Am I expected to admire a woman who would burden her daughter with the name Quintana Roo?”
When I mention to her that this memoir might just be critic-proof, she says, “No, I don’t think it’s critic-proof. Not at all. Not if my daughter’s name wasn’t critic-proof. Nothing is critic-proof. I’m sure it will enrage some people.”
What about it? I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Just what always enrages people about me. I . . . I . . . I . . . could sit down and make a list of things that I notice enrage people about me. To some extent it’s the way people thought about Clare Luce, except I’m not rich and I’m not right-wing. I’m not exactly on the same program as a lot of people. On the other hand, I seem to be perfectly happy. I lead a very conventional life. I don’t lead a writer’s life. And I think that can be a source of suspicion and irritation to some people. This was more true when I was living in California, when I didn’t lead a writer’s life at all. Quintana knew we were writers, but she didn’t realize until she went to college that that was in any way a valued occupation, because it’s not in the world in which she grew up.”
“It’s a whole different level of loss,” Didion says of Quintana’s death. “This is the part I don’t want to talk about.”
I am embarrassed to admit that my bad Joan Didion timing struck again this past summer. Knowing that she had written a book that was coming out soon, I e-mailed Didion to bug her again about an interview. A couple of hours later, she accidentally sent an e-mail to me that was intended for her editor at Knopf. “I have no idea how to answer this because in my current mode I find it offensive, which isn’t necessarily Jonathan Van Meter’s fault (or maybe it is).” Unbeknownst to me, Quintana had gone back into the hospital just two days earlier with acute pancreatitis, where she remained in intensive care for two and a half months. She died on August 26.
When we first sat down in Didion’s living room to talk, I had told her that I was anxious about coming today knowing I would be asking questions about difficult things. “If it’s difficult,” she said with a deep, nervous chuckle, “I’ll tell you.” Then she said, “This is something that, because I wrote about it, I can talk about it. In terms of John’s death, in the course of writing the book, I had to come to terms with it. It’s like Margaret Fuller: I accept the universe.” Here, she laughed again and then stared at the coffee table for a very long time. “I wouldn’t want to have a long conversation about Quintana’s death.”
Toward the end of our talk, I tentatively bring it up. “For about four days,” says Didion, “she seemed to be getting better, they thought she was getting better, but this turned out to be an illusion. She wasn’t. The doctors said this summer that the number of infections that she had endured over the course of the previous hospitalizations—hospital infections, basically—had lowered her ability to cope with this one. Pancreatitis is a bad thing.” Quintana was conscious only when she wasn’t on a ventilator, and Didion’s last conversation with her daughter was two weeks before she died, just before she was taken into surgery. “She was never conscious again after the surgery because they kept her under sedation.”