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


O, how I adore Didion. For whatever reason, found myself surprised that I also enjoyed a novel of hers. The prose itself is very "typical Didion," but the narrative itself strikes me as far stranger than her non-fiction. Seems Didion tends toward the penetrative (in the sense of cutting through the b.s., not whatever your dirty mind was going to in that damned gutter!), whereas this novel invested most of its energy in the unknowable. Charlotte Douglas is one of the most bizarre characters I've encountered lately in fiction. I have two main modes of reading her, but neither seems to fit right: nor does the middle ground. Not to mention the narrator (Grace? Jesus, she effaces herself so effectively that I hardly remember there being an individualized narrator at all) tries her damnedest to understand/mystify Charlotte. I'd love to read it more politically--as I was supposed to for my class--but I'll confess that was never my immediate concern. Any rate: great novel. Think a good "American Pastoral." Oops!


3.5 star read.I liked this book. I thought it was written almost sparingly - Didion didn't waste words, sentences, paragraphs. She just created a place and time that worked really well.I trusted the narration right from the start since it was Grace telling us Charlotte's story. Grace fully admitted to a certain ignorance of events, or the learning of them second-hand. However it all felt authentic.The story reminded me somewhat of Bel Canto -both take place in a made-up South American country. This was the story of a person's life - loves, loss, depression, acceptance, lies, etc. I would almost call it a simple tale - really well told.


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.

Juanita Rice

A Book of Common Prayer, although it is Joan Didion's third novel, is a relatively early book (1977) for she is still working today in 2012. What I enjoy most about it is what I also loved about her later book Democracy : a distinctive style that orchestrates and shapes, using white space as silence. She herself has written about her fixation on arrangements of words, on sentences themselves. Didion also communicates essentials about characters through a focus on externals: actions, words spoken, setting, objects, appearances. A $600 handbag with a broken clasp, for instance, speaks about the main character here: Charlotte Douglas. In both books Didion creates a special tone of narration too, that of an intelligent and insightful observer.. It is an investigative voice, of someone who knows instinctively that her presence colors what she sees. For the narrator is a woman, but with almost nothing of conventional "womanliness" or, certainly, "femininity" as that word is used to imply shallowness, timidity, giddiness, or prying. It is fascinating how seldom both narrator and main character are women. In Democracy I often forgot the gender of the narrator, or rather, and more interestingly, I would slip into the peculiar relationship with reading in which narration just "is" male after a long history of reading books almost exclusively by men: the narrator is a sidekick, a Watson, a historian or investigator like a Marlow, or unnamed and only male only because the author is.In Common Prayer, the narrator is definitely a character; she has a name, a class, a singular history, and family relationships with other characters; still, she remains free of the feminine. A 60-year-old widow with extensive financial control of a wealthy family in the small oligarchy of a Central American country, she drily regrets her inability to like her adult son very much. We learn that she renounced a career in anthropology because (is this a Didion trope?) it became meaningless: "Let me go further," she says. "I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all." So she married the elder son of a planter family in the fictional Boca Grande (maybe modeled on El Salvador, which Didion will later visit at the height of the death squads and atrocities of Roberto D'Aubuisson in 1982). All of this is disclosed early in tidy unemotional prose.To Boca Grande comes Charlotte Douglas, mother of an 18-year-old daughter and owner of the said $600 purse, a particularly vacuous presence at first. Although tourists are not uncommon, Charlotte catches the attention of the narrator Grace Strasser Mendana, partly because Charlotte's visa is on a "special-attention" U.S. State Department list.Here is how the book begins: I will be her witness. That would translate sere su testigo. . . . . Here is what happened: she left one man, she left a second man, she traveled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one child to 'history' and another to 'complications'. . . .. . . . . She died, hopeful. In summary. So you know the story. Of course the story had extenuating circumstances, weather, cracked sidewalks and paregorina, but only for the living. That this summary is entirely inadequate is perhaps Grace's point; as anthropologist she had "stopped believing observable activity defined anthropos." Interestingly, much of what happens to fill in the story of Charlotte Douglas occurs far from the narrator's observation, again as in Democracy. The scenes that are background, the cracked sidewalks, the weather, and especially the extenuating circumstances are written in lively present-action dramatization, realistically, word for word of blistering exchanges between witty educated persons. Little time is spent on what Charlotte felt or thought; Didion writes mostly what Charlotte says and does, what those around her do and say, but we can definitely surmise. "Charlotte did not open her eyes." "Charlotte stood up." 'She's overwrought,' Charlotte heard Warren say as she fled the room." The powerful hook of the story, especially in 1977 on the west coast after Patty Hearst and SLA news, is how Charlotte "lost one child to history": two FBI men arrive at her home in San Francisco one morning and show her a picture of her eighteen-year-old daughter and four others setting a pipe bomb at San Francisco's Transamerica building, after which the five hijacked a plane and disappeared. The scene in which Charlotte receives this news affected me deeply as she tries to connect this "pitiless revolutionist" they talk about with her recollections of her child. She insists they are wrong; her daughter is skiing at Squaw Valley "Or so Charlotte tried to tell the fat FBI man." When Marin's father (the first man she left) arrives in San Francisco, Charlotte's tensions ratchet up to higher gear. Later Grace will try to get Charlotte to Boca Grande before "all hell breaks loose," for revolution is a hot topic not only in the U.S. : Grace's family will play different sides in a particularly chaotic upheaval there. The book parallels the chaos in Charlotte's life before she arrives in Central America with a full picture of the utter dysfunctions in Boca Grande's ruling party—neurotic wives, sociopath brothers (only two of four survive), their mistresses, their boredom, their luxury, their power, and their "touchiness." Much is also made of Charlotte's class: "as a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone," she took for granted orthodontics, living grandparents, ballet lessons and how to care for "flat silver." In her prayers she had asked that "it" turn out all right and fully expected "it" would. "Until later," Didion adds. She had faith in "thrift, industry, and the judicial system, of progress and education, and in the generally upward spiral of history." But, Grace observes: "She was immaculate of history, innocent of politics."A word more about style and structure: it is written in undesignated parts One through Six, major segments quite different in length, style and structure. Part Three, for instance, is only ten pages long with three smaller segments. The Sixth part is also ten pages long, but it has five sections, ranging from a half-page to just over two pages long, and with ample white space between parts. Other parts are longer: 87, 68, and 35 pages each, with six to nineteen sections. The structural variety reads like a screenplay—is it incidental that Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne worked on a number of movies and were Hollywood Insiders? There are long leisurely realistic scenes, long lively tense scenes, short takes, flashbacks, fades and jump cuts. Moments leap out. Scenes! Here, however, words themselves take on weight and tactile presence without actors.It would be fascinating to compare this book with Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm. In Atwood's book the suffering of the people of a Caribbean island in revolution is the fulcrum driving a Canadian woman to grow up and face herself. In Didion's tropical country there seem to be no people, no populace. The "guerillas" are an explicit joke, pawns of different factions of the ruling class. They will be "picked off one by one," but they are never people. Grace doesn't notice that Charlotte is trying to be perhaps one of the people through volunteering at a clinic. Grace only tells us about the people of her class, those of Charlotte's class. And Didion doesn't explain Charlotte's motivation either. In Didion's Salvador (1982) which I am reading at the moment she will write of "the population that make $750 per capita." But they will not really exist, I fear. For her, or for her reader.In George Orwell's essay "Marrakech"(1938-39) he writes about the day he finally noticed what he'd been seeing every day but not seeing: a string of tiny old women carrying heavy loads of firewood past his lodgings. He muses that he had noticed at once upon his arrival in Morocco the "abominable overloading of small donkeys," noticed, and been shocked, incensed. But, he points out, [European] visitors never do really "see" brown people, a blindness that all colonial empires depend upon. How else could tourists visit Africa and Asia (in the U.S., I would add Mexico and Central America) except to go and surround themselves with their own kind, in privileged isolation, without seeing the lives, and the deaths, around them?I think Didion misses some of this sensibility in her Grace-Strasser-like cynicism, neurosis, privilege, isolation—whatever it is. But she writes with keen insight into the suffering of women in the privileged classes, and her books are beautifully orchestrated and somewhat terrifying.


This starts out feeling like one of those Deborah Eisenberg stories set in a made-up Central American country, but pretty soon you orient yourself and realize you're in deliciously dated late-1970s Didionland. This entails being surrounded by characters who think, speak, and behave only like Joan Didion characters and not remotely like anyone in actual life, and reading gorgeously crafted and sometimes embarrassingly dramatic sentences. The novel is narrated by steely, Didionesque observer Grace, and tells the story of Charlotte Douglas, the wealthy, childlike, hypersensual, idiosyncratic mother of a Patty Hearst-type rich-girl-turned-revolutionary-terrorist. Charlotte is hanging around Boca Grande, a fake maybe-El Salvador where she has fled to escape her Joan Didion novel of a past and to submit the enigma of her existence to the former-anthropologist-cum-hobby-scientist-and-ruling-elite narrator's gaze.I personally feel sentimental about the Bay Area in the 1970s, as it's the ground out of which I was grown, and this book fed my hunger for a glimpse of that time. This is actually just the second Didion novel I've read, but she has such a distinctive style that I keep wanting to make broad pronouncements about her fiction. There is almost no one I take more seriously than Joan Didion the nonfiction writer, but I find her fiction pretty absurd. I happen to love it, but it strikes me at many times as coming close to camp. Everyone is so rich and disoriented and the sex is all weird and women are these confused, fascinating creatures who are sort of hapless victims of often cruel, or at least detached men who have great success both in understanding and controlling the female characters and in navigating the world. I'm not sure what to make of it all, but I do like it. This book is fun and, as I said, very late-1970s. I read it on an airplane, in a hotel, and at my in-laws' house, and it's good for that kind of vacation. Definitely recommend this paperback edition with the lighter on the front and the lady's face and Cosmo blurb on the back.


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


I just, didn't get it. Yes, it's a eulogy and there's a lot going on and Charlotte was kind of a crack pot of a person and her life was a reflection of that, but, I just, didn't get it.I was excited to read Didion's acclaimed fiction after having been passed an essay she wrote that I found particularly vivid. However, I was disappointed in her storytelling, which, honestly is likely only personal preference.The past few novels I've read have been epic-realistic-tales. I got frustrated reading Kerouac's poems recently. Diving into a medium length fiction piece that shoots from the hip is bound to be tough.There were too many characters who I never fully understood. Too many events that didn't register. Too many cute sentences that only confused me.I'll look into more of her non-fiction, but can't imagine being talked into another story.Have at it. . .


Uno stile davvero elegante e sofisticato. Minimale ma efficace; però non sono riuscita ad apprezzare la storia che rimane così sospesa e sfilacciata senza interessarmi in modo particolare. Quasi mi piaceva di più leggere delle cognate e dei parenti dell'io narrante che la storia della Nortamericana; ma leggerò altro di questa autrice perché la scrittura merita


Easily the most depressing thing I've read in years (with the possible exception of the collected stories of Amy Hempel, which, as the NYT review says, should not be read all in one go). Woman lives life barely connected to it, dissembles, is used, lives life of quiet desperation, eventually ends up in soul-crushing tropics to die. I CAN'T FINISH IT. No really, I don't do this with books, but I'm stopping with 100 pages to go. Sorry, Charlotte, I just can't bring myself to see what (or rather, how) happens to you in the end.Well-written -- it's not that I didn't like the prose. But shit, I can't finish.If this is typical Didion I'm not going to read any more of her.


First of all, despite the title, this is not a Christian book about praying and shit like that. It’s a novel about human dislocation and the intractability of delusion, set against the backdrop of Central American revolution. Didion is best known for her nonfiction, but I proselytize for her novels every chance I get.


Charlotte Douglas, in transito.La bella e misteriosa Charlotte, la fica norteamericana, come la chiamerà con disprezzo uno dei padroni del luogo, arriva a Boca Grande, la città in cui la luce è abbagliante e seducente, senza un perché, in fuga dalla vita, ma molto più probabilmente in transito, com'è sempre stata in ogni luogo ove abbia messo radici. O forse per restare per sempre.Ce la racconta Grace, anche lei norteamericana, erede e moglie dell'ultimo grande padrone di Boca Grande, l'unica che in qualche modo sembra volerla comprendere, l'unica che anche dopo, pur senza averla mai amata, continuerà a cercare di raccontarla, di scoprirla, che esordisce dicendo Testimonierò per lei.E la sua voce, che ci accompagna per tutto il romanzo, è a volte dolente, carezzevole, altre sprezzante, a tratti caustica e disincantata, ma sempre precisa, netta.Altre volte si assottiglia, invece, fino a scomparire, e io ne ho sofferto l'assenza, perché «Diglielo da parte mia» non è il romanzo che sembrava essere dopo aver letto le prime pagine, ma tutt'altro, tutta un'altra storia, e il suo accompagnarmi, il suo tenermi per mano, mi rassicurava e mi faceva intravedere comunque la luce.Boca Grande non esiste, ma è sempre esistita, «terra di grandi contrasti», ipotetico paese latinoamericano simbolo della bellezza accecante di tutti i paesi del Sudamerica e del Centroamerica, luoghi in cui dagli Stati Uniti ci si recava in cerca del buen retiro, o per vendere armi ai ribelli, o per sostenere i governi dittatoriali, o solamente per fuggire dalla vita. O per ritrovarla.E Charlotte, sensuale e ingenua, ricca e viziata, ma anche il suo esatto opposto, capace di uccidere una gallina strangolandola a mani nude o di eseguire una tracheotomia in abito da sera, o di mettersi al servizio della povera gente per vaccinarla contro il colera, Charlotte con i suoi due mariti e le sue relazioni, in transito anch'esse, Charlotte con Marin, una figlia mai conosciuta davvero, in fondo voleva solo che le «cose andassero bene», come chiedeva al suo Dio in quelle preghiere comuni, semplici e consuete, quasi banali, forse le common prayer del titolo originale, che faceva la sera prima di addormentarsi.Mi è piaciuta la scrittura di Joan Didion, una vera scoperta, uno stile asciutto, essenziale, e quelle frasi cortissime che sembrano incidere come un bisturi, ripetute a volte come un mantra, come una cantilena, che scivola sotto la pelle fino a diventare un'àncora alla quale aggrapparsi.La sua è una scrittura esatta, sofisticata, magnetica, enigmatica come le azioni di tutti, a Boca Grande e negli Stati Uniti, come i ricordi di Grace, quella Grace che doveva e poteva essere l'àncora di Charlotte.Avrebbe dovuto aggrapparsi anche Charlotte, a Grace, come ho fatto io. Avrebbe potuto farlo.Avrebbe dovuto farlo per tutta la vita.Tutto quello che so ora è che quando penso a Charlotte Douglas che cammina nel caldo vento notturno in direzione delle luci di Capilla del Mar, sono sempre meno certa che questa sia stata una storia di illusioni.A meno che le illusioni non fossero le mie.[…] Non sono stata la testimone che avrei voluto essere.

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?

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.


If _Play It as It Lays_ was Didion doing Chandler, this is her version of a Graham Greene novel, whereby a sophisticated viewer in a small former colony (in this case the Latin American Boca Grande) learns that the naivete of a stranger is the proper way to encounter the world.Here, the sophisticate is the American-born wife of a former dictator of Boca Grande, and the innocent abroad is Charlotte, mother of a girl gone radical terrorist in the sixties, who has washed up in Boca Grande for, well, a novel's worth of reasons-- to reconnect with her daughter (indirectly), to expiate for her sins and those of her daughter (perhaps), to get away from both of the above strains.I didn't love this one the way I did _Play it as it lays_, though. I kep feeling like Didion was missing the realities of life outside of the US. Yes, there's something bracingly cynical to see BG as just a plaything of the wealthy, and it suits the narrator, but I'm not sure it's the most interesting way to tackle the material.... I could say almost the same thing about the daughter-as-terrorist, that Didion here isn't able to get past her own prejudices to really give voice to the characters she is writing about. It's not meant as much of an indictment, really. I like Didion, I like what she does. But I'm not sure that this book really plays to her strengths, or that she sufficiently stretches to successfully tell the story contained here.


I am not always a fan of Didion's fiction, but this book was exceptional. Warren Bogart is one of the ugliest characters I have ever read, and I mean that as a compliment.

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