14 December 2016

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty

I know that I semi-reviewed this book in the author spotlight on Joan Didion, but I have been googling her name every day for six days to make sure she hasn't died. I also just looked through some of the quotations I have saved to my computer and there are a lot I want to share from this biography. Again, I bought this book because I will buy anything that mentions Joan Didion's name, but also I bought it so I could fact check it. This review looks gigantic but it is mostly just quotations so...

This book is pretty dry and you are going to have to be a massive Didion fan in order to enjoy any of it. But it was honestly worth all 752 pages just to have a better idea about the following things:

1. Noel Parmentel

Parmentel was Didion's first serious relationship in New York and one that helped contribute to the publication of her first novel, as well as her introduction to her future husband John Gregory Dunne. This section was especially interesting to me because I love A Book of Common Prayer so much and the main character's (Charlotte) ex-husband (Warren) is apparently based off of Parmentel... so much so that he considered suing her for defamation.

Ugh I just spent 20 minutes flipping through my copy of A Book of Common Prayer to find this argument that is one of my all-time favourite arguments. The only background I can give you is that Didion's characters are usually incredibly reserved / despondent ...

"Don't let me keep you. Somebody who loves you is dying, your only child is lost, I'm asking you one last favor, and you've got a lunch date." Warren opened the lid of the silver box again. The mechanism began to play. "You're never going to see Marin again but never mind, you've got a lunch date? And maybe after your 'lunch date' you and your interesting husband can, what do you call it, 'get stoned?'" 

"You FUCK," Charlotte screamed.

AHHHHH. Sooooo satisfying.. but maybe only to me? Either way, from what I've read in the biography this seems like a real fight Didion and Parmentel could have had. But this is complete speculation on my part.

*** Meg told me this part makes no sense because it lacks context ... she also said that she knows that when I get excited I word vomit but that no one else will understand ... I won't be taking it out though because I spent 20 minutes looking for this passage ... ***

The other reason I can see the parallels between Parmentel (from what I've gathered from the biography) and the fictitious Warren is the sheer amount of times "you were wrong" is used throughout A Book of Common Prayer. Warren is constantly asking people to remind Charlotte that she was wrong. There is a passage in The Year of Magical Thinking where Didion talks about finding a note that said "you were wrong" tucked behind a painting in her new home. She suggests that "someone who was once very close to her" placed it there. It was obviously Parmentel. Daugherty even thinks so.

I should have mentioned above that Didion is not involved at all with the biography, but Daugherty does get some interviews with Parmentel.

This is my favourite photo of Didion ever. I will eventually print it off and put it in a frame in my apartment with the following quote from the biography: "How do you feel when you consider that you will probably live longer than most men? ' It never occurs to me', she said." I don't know why this quotation is so fascinating to me, but I do know I hate men. 

2.Mystery of Quintana's illness

Man, this is one of the more fascinating parts of the book. I honestly never even really considered how mysterious Didion and Dunne's daughter's death was. Both Didion's last pieces of non-fiction, and arguably her most famous, are about Quintana's death. After reading both of those memoirs a few times, if someone asked me how she died my best guess would have been "pneumonia gone awry."

Daughtery suggests Quintana's reaction to pneumonia was likely caused by her addiction issues. I feel kind of like a moron for not even considering the amount of unanswered questions about their daughters death. This stuff is very interesting, but it makes you feel uncomfortable when Didion purposely fails to mention this in her memoirs. Blue Nights does refer to Quintana's struggle with mental illness but doesn't even mention her addiction issues.

3. Didion and Dunne's relationship

I needed to read this because I definitely held their relationship to an absurd standard. In Political Fictions Didion writes in the dedication "It is also for John Gregory Dunne, who lived through my discovering what he already knew." This is somehow the most beautiful / romantic thing I have ever read. Meg and my friend Katie both think so as well.

I thought they were the most perfect couple of all time and am certainly glad to know that like all long-term relationships they had some serious problems. For instance, Daughtery talks about how Dunne lived in a motel for months at a time after having screaming fights with Didion when Quintana was a child. These fights were probably fuelled by alcohol... one of their favourite things.

You also learn a little about their first sexual encounter with each other... I don't even know how to write about this so I'm just going to stop. But I should say that I am now obsessed with tracking down Dunne's book Vegas which is supposed to have this scene in detail. I NEED THIS BOOK.

“The obituary in The New York Times read: ‘Mr. Dunne and Ms. Didion were probably America’s best known writing couple’ – as though she had died with him. ‘They were anointed as the First Family of Angst by the Saturday Review in 1982 for their unflinching explorations of the national soul, or often, the glaring lack of one.’” 

4. Dominick Dunne

There is a pretty big section on Dominick Dunne (Didion's brother-in-law). This is largely due to the fact that the movie industry was a large part of Didion and her husband's income. They wrote a few screen plays (The Panic at Needle Park) and spent a lot of time with some "Hollywood big shots."

Dominick Dunne seems like the most annoying, whiney baby that ever existed. I am so obsessed with Didion that not only have I read every single book she has ever published, but I have also started searching all of Canada and the U.S. for books by her husband ...

So you would think I would be interested in reading anything by Dominick Dunne, but honestly I don't think I can even bother. Here is something from the biography about him:  “Nick had finally hit bottom. ‘Day-to-day living became unbearable,’ he said. He’d blown most of his money on his drug habits. ‘I sold my West Highland terrier named Alfie to Connie Wald for $300 … What kind of man would sell his dog?”

Didion's husband had a massive falling out with Dominick after the suicide of their youngest brother Stephen.

Didion and daughter Quintana
The book doesn't read the way most standard biographies do? I don't really know how else to explain that. I also don't really read many biographies so what the hell do I know... Here's another line from Daughtery that I really liked:

“’We tell ourselves stories in order to live’ – and if the story is not readily apparent, we will weave one out of whatever scraps are at hand; we will use our puzzlement as a motivating factor; we will tell our way out of any trap, or goddamn seedy motel.”

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," is probably the most famous Didion line. It is the opening sentence in her essay collection The White Album.

This book is really only for the Didion fanatic. I honestly wouldn't really ever recommend it to anyone. Here is one last passage... Daughtery took it from a transcribed interview with Didion .. I cannot remember what publication it was for.

“In one sense, the book is ‘about being older,’ she said, and the knowledge accruing from that.
Which was what? an interviewer asked.
Didion’s answer made her sound like a child once more, heeding her mother’s warnings. ‘Be a better person,’ she said. And then, as if the weight of all her losses was borne in upon her – her father’s false-cheery calls for a drink, her mother’s sad indifference, the valley’s rage to incarcerate the state’s kids: ‘Nobody can ever be nice enough.’”

I love Joan Didion's writing so much my stomach is aching just thinking about it.

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