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.


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.


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.


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.)


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

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.


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.


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.


This was a re-read for me this year. A Book of Common Prayer was the first of Didion's novels that I read and it is certainly my favourite. I particularly enjoy the way Didion employs the cultural differences between Boca Grande and the United States. This novel is quintessential Didion and I liked it even more upon this re-read.


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.


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.


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.


I really liked Joan Didion's snappy, witty style. Charlotte Douglas, the star of the book, doesn't seem as sharp as the narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana, but we come to see Charlotte's own brand of intelligence poking through later on it the book. The witty conversations in the book reminded me of old movies with Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, except all the wit was coming from female characters and the males tended to be dopes or, if witty, self-absorbed assholes. Charlotte's first husband Warren Bogart even shares a last name with the early Hollywood star. Warren shares Humphrey's sharp tongue and his boozing tendencies, but he basically manipulates and uses people as if they were disposable. Thus he is more insult comic than debonair Hollywood lead. I thought the narrator's jaded perspective of coups in a Latin American country were very pointed and surprisingly on the mark. Overall, I though the book lacked too much in terms of plot to be great, but was very good at portraying privileged Americans and privileged Latinos in a sort of blank canvass of a failed Latin American state.


I enjoyed reading A Book of Common Prayer, but mostly because I was interested by character of Charlotte Douglas, the protagonist. She's very much a Didion creation, a passive and passive-aggressive floaty fragile sort who possibly takes a variety of drugs and possibly has undiagnosed mental issues. The book fails, to me at least, to effectively conjure up its setting (a decrepit, unstable Central American dictatorship) or to flesh out any characters besides Charlotte. I imagine if you are not a Didion fan you would not enjoy this book; not only is Charlotte's character slightly reminiscent of Didion herself, all the author's renowned literary tics are present as well. But I did enjoy it, and I did enjoy Charlotte, and the point Didion makes about all of us knowing things that we choose to ignore.

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