A Book of Common Prayer

ISBN: 0679754865
ISBN 13: 9780679754862
By: Joan Didion Oscar Liebman

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About this book

In this Conradian masterpiece of American innocence and evil set in the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande, two American women face the harsh realities, political and personal, of living on the edge in a land with an uncertain future. Writing with her signature telegraphic swiftness, the author creates a terrifying commentary on an age of conscienceless authority.

Reader's Thoughts

Colin Anton

A week of uncommon prayer:"Dear God, is there any likable characters in this book?""Dear God, will there be a plot? Please, I beseech and implore you..."An interesting character study of a feminine soulless spirit at its worst (the spirit, not the character study). Ruminations of apathy and mortality, motherhood and marriage, American expatriatism and Latin chauvinism, and most of all, running from the past only to unfortunately meet it in the future. Not uplifting. Wish I had read it during a snowy day in February rather than sunny May afternoons. But the writing style doesn't suck - instead, it sucks you in till the very end. Thank God for that.


Gave up on this book. Just couldn't get into it, reading it wasn't a pleasure and there are so many other books to try. I loved Year of Magical Thinking, but it is a very different genre to this. Her "razor sharp storytelling insight" was clearly lost on me.


This was originally published on The Scrying Orb.Joan Didion is one of my favorite authors and working through her fiction, I can basically bullet-point what a book will contain: - A detached heroine, probably in her thirties. A woman becoming unhinged. - Cruel men in positions of power over the heroine, who have jobs that give them financial and social clout that allow them to be 100% assholes without much consequence (lawyers, producers, etc). The men may be just as detached as the women, but they exude at least the appearance of control. - A lost child. - A stomach churning body horror scene, probably relating to the above bullet point, involving a botched abortion or miscarriage or horrifying birth. - Actually it doesn’t have to be tied to birth. Vaginal blood, arriving in one way or another, and being integral to at least one crucial scene and maybe one shock scene. Maybe they’re the same scene. In A Book of Common Prayer, a bomb goes off outside a birth control clinic and a doctor jumps in fright while inserting an IUD and punctures his patient’s uterus. Meanwhile, the protagonist (who is working at the clinic) is on her period and this is important. - A disorienting disconnect between how much money the characters are spending and how much money they can possibly have/make; it’s not merely like those sorts of books where seemingly everyone is rich. In A Book of Common Prayer, the protagonist has left her husband and has no job, and is somehow jumping from airport to airport with ease. - Sex is scary and bizarre, but also understated. When it happens, it is mentioned casually or in a scene much later than when it actually happened. It’s generally inexplicable why the heroine is having sex with whomever she is having sex with. - Depression and depravity are omnipresent. Everyone is sad or an asshole, but probably both. Hope or escape is generally represented in the (lost) child. - Physical and spiritual despoilment in fictional third world countries, mirroring the protagonist’s own fall/state of mind/ennui. - A cold, detached narrator who is not so cold and detached as her self image had her believe before the plight of the subject/protagonist came to pass before her very eyes. - Just enough hope or possible freedom to make the utter dashing of said hope/freedom sting (but you knew it was coming anyway).Yet. The writing is so good, so biting and sharp and uniquely Joan Didion that I keep on reading, even as the books become indistinguishable. Plus, they’re really short and move at breakneck speed, so there’s not enough time to get bored.(Also while looking for the cover image online, I discovered this book, written in 1977, is suddenly going to have a movie adaptation starring Christina Hendricks come out this year???)

Jasmine Woodson

I enjoyed this a lot. Blessed pecking sparrows, Didion’s prose. Her prose. It’s so tight, so spare, so, as they say (I think) “muscular”. I think that I use this term differently that others do. Her sentences aren’t knuckles against your forehead--it’s far more gently realized than that. But make no mistake, the way this woman uses words has a precise surety to it that feels very definite, even though the sentiment the words are conveying, the rendering of another woman’s life by an observer, are, as repeatedly reiterated by the narrator, anything but sure. Let me now get to the gristle of it: this is a secondhand tale. Charlotte Douglas’ life as told by Grace Strasser-Mendina, a friend, or a kind-of friend. Or a kind-of body in a kind-of shared space. The logistics of this story are problematic--there are times I found myself and my headspace falling out of the story and wondering how on earth Grace would be privy to the events that she is narrating. For her narrative voice is always there. And so the conceit is always there. I suppose at times, it’s not so thickly and blackly framed but it maintains a consistent presence.And so I feel I know Charlotte and her drowning soul, and I know Grace, mathematical, journalistic, but not unfeeling, through the peculiar shade of her lens.In sum, The book of Common Prayer is like paper: fine, but sharp.(That title, though, I haven’t quite sorted out. Is this is a hagiography? ‘Prayer’ suggests it. “I will be her witness” has a religious bend. I don’t know, though, I do not know.)

Tamara Dahling

Joan Didion's writing, sparse, eloquent, & beautiful, always leaves me satisfied but wanting more. I finished this novel and immediately turned to page one and reread the first few chapters. In this book, Didion weaves the stories of two women whose lives intersect in a fictional Central/ South American country rife with revolutionary activity, a daughter sought by the FBI, an ex-husband, and so much more. And yet, that's not really what the book is about, but that's the enjoyment of a book like this. You don't know where it's taking you, and you aren't sure where you are when you arrive, but you are very glad you took the trip.


Didion's third novel revolves around two American women caught deeply within the under-developed and highly corrupt Latin American country of Boca Grande. One controls most of the country's wealth while the other has arrived as an "una tourista" hoping to be re-united with her estranged, revolutionary daughter. Greed abound, people die and are displaced. While Grace, the narrator, is left with uncertainties about the truth of various events that took place in Boca Grande.Didion is awesome as usual with her terse but effectual prose. She pulls out all the small, overlook details and reveals the worlds that exist within them. The strongest part of this novel were the moments that took place in the states and involved the upper-middle class. As expected, Didion kicks ass at artfully, exposing the cushioned life of materialism and excess in these societies.I ran into problems with this book because I feel there were too many unnecessary characters that fell flat because not enough time was given to them. Also, the story was a bit unbalanced in how it played out. The first part of this novel actually starts out very slowly and it isn't until about 100 pages in that I start to really care whats going on. Also, its conclusion dragged and I found Didion becoming a bit too histrionic in the final chapters. Overall though, this is a solid book that is at times brilliant.


In some ways, similar to American Pastoral by Roth. Both with psychologically tormented protagonists, both with demented terrorist daughters. The drawback to A Book of Common Prayer is that Joan Didion's characters and narrator are lofty and bourgeoisie, but are also cold and hard to identify with. Charlotte Douglas is not as tormented nor driven as The Swede, and Marin never develops into a character with any substance, let alone the brilliance, like Merry's.Maybe I am daft, but I did not feel like Boca Grande was a real place either. I know that it is an "imaginary" place, but I sat around looking at the island off of Florida "imagining" how that place could be the place in the book. Neither of them seem real to a landlocked Midwesterner such as myself, no offense to real Boca Grandeans. There were some echo's of The Year of Magical Thinking in Common Prayer, and in someways I recognized parts of the stories of the young Quintana in the young Marin. Common Prayer is best when Didion uses repetition to reinforce solid observations about Douglas's tragic life, but overall it is too undeveloped and unsatisfying a read.

Jeff Jackson

The first time I read this, the Latin American scenes stayed with me, but this time I was knocked out by the travelogue section set in the Deep South, which weirdly kept evoking moments from the banned Rolling Stones tourfilm 'Cocksucker Blues.' Then there's the great New Orleans dinner party scene, which is as vivid as anything in 'The Moviegoer.' There's so many loaded cultural details packed into the prose and the story accumulates in such odd spasms that this isn't nearly as immediate as 'Democracy' or 'Play It As It Lays.' But just as I was starting to downgrade it, the ending pulls the various strands together, the final pages brilliantly revising everything you've read to that point.


I have not been the witness I wanted to be.Charlotte Douglas, an American woman sojourning in ficitional Central American country of Boca Grande, is the focus of this book. Charlotte's beloved daughter Marin has run off with a group of Marxist radicals and taken part in an absurd act of terrorism, and in the wake of her daughter's disappearance Charlotte's marriage to a crusading Berkeley lawyer (not Marin's father), has fallen apart.Charlotte is a bit silly and divorced from reality and enjoys lunching at expense hotels while Revolution rages on around her. In reading other Didion fiction and non-fiction, I think Didion has used these characters (Charlotte, Marin) before and she can certainly squeeze a lot out of them.I will say that I think Joan Didion is one of the best writers I have ever read and I especially enjoy her non-fiction. I will give more of her fiction a try in the future.


This is the second book I have recently read about American women in Central America - a prostitute in Nicaragua (The Stars at Noon) in 1984; and really, a solid example of an American prototype in the 1970s in A Book of Common Prayer set in Boca Grande, which is described to be somewhere in Central America - but seems to possibly be fictional? I don't know, every time I try to look it up, all I find is somewhere in Florida. I find it somewhat strange that I have managed to pick up two seemingly random books that have such similar settings, and in ways, similar characters. In The Stars at Noon you have a character who not only accepts the harsh realities she has come across in this world, she embraces them. In A Book of Common Prayer, you have a woman who subsides on being completely ignorant, a pawn in everyone else's world, who floats about on her own detached sea. Some of the reviews on the book discuss how it paints such a vivid picture of the times, and I wonder if they just mean in war.The interesting thing I find is that in both stories, the only way either of them addresses the way in which the war affects them is by how it mangles their own lives. Politics, too. The politics made personal, or, I don't know. I begin to wonder if they are meant to be examples, and if so, examples of what: if they are examples of American ignorance, if they are examples of what war really means to everyone. Because only some far-fetched hero would really be able to tell you what happened, other than the sketches pulled by hearsay out of otherwise thin air, and what happened beyond the tip of their own nose.Similarly, I can relay what the experience was to me. I also read this book, almost entirely at work, except for the last fifty pages that I read on a bench on the back porch warding of mosquitoes in the heat and drinking a Heineken light. While I was reading this book during the day, during what normally should be working hours, during a time when I should be doing something to make this world a better place somehow I was reading these pages as if I was holding my breath until finished, the way I also read the only other Didion book I've ever read. I finished it in two days. The book chilled me to the bone, until I was out of the canned AC and on the back porch, where I could more accurately weight the potency of such a creation (or something more like, I could fool myself into believing that by the heat and the sun and vitamin D that the world still has a heart). I believe her other book did the same to me as well. Didion relies on dialogue to develop her characters, most of the men in her stories are sons-of-bitches, and the women aren't really all that better. I can't tell if Didion is just being honest or cynical or mean or what, but I don't know that this story was really told from a particular intention, either.All I know is this compelled me to write this long-winded something you couldn't even quite call a review, for whatever that is worth. I don't know how to review books anyhow, I only know how to respond to them.

Adam Tramposh

A charming, tropical meditation on the gaping vacuums that exist in our consciences. Didion writes in the voice of someone who is always calm – it is like a lullaby.

Jenny Esots

Not sure this book knows what it is trying to say.It meanders back and forth.We hear about Charlotte, Marin, Grace, Warren, Leonard and a host of others.But who was Charlotte?A socialite? A kept woman?She seems to have let other people do most of the living and just floated along in search of what?There is great skill and acumen in developing undesirable characters.But did I really want to take this ride?


I will read this book at least once a year.Just read it.


I don't know. I found the flat prose compelling in its own way, and I didn't have any trouble getting through it. But I don't think it left me with any lasting impressions. There was not much of a plot to speak of, so I'm left grasping for some kind of coherent theme, but all I'm left with is a woman seemingly trying to maintain some innocence amidst a corruption as pervasive as the rot that, according to the narrator, devours everything in (the amusingly aptly named, when I put it this way) Boca Grande. She says "A banana palm is no more or less 'alive' than its rot. Is it." and in a way it feels like this is a story of two characters: Charlotte Douglas the banana palm, and the rot. That's just not enough to make me feel like there was much of a point.

Irmak Ertuna-howison

Women, men, sexual and real-life politics, 70s, Latin America: What more can a reader ask for in a novel? It's the first Didion novel I read but I will definitely read more now.

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