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


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.


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.


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.

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.

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 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. . .


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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