A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

A Book of Common Prayer is the story of two American women in the derelict Central American nation of Boca Grande. Grace Strasser-Mendana controls much of the country’s wealth and knows virtually all of its secrets; Charlotte Douglas knows far too little. “Immaculate of history, innocent of politics,” she has come to Boca Grande vaguely and vainly hoping to be reunited with her fugitive daughter.

After finishing this one, my immediate reaction was: This is an American Orwellian. Most of the plot takes place in a banana republic. There’s a bit of a mystery unfolding, as the novel’s protagonist is looking for answers about what has happened to a strange woman—Charlotte–and her revolutionary daughter. Though the narrator meets the woman and her most intimate—if that word can even be applied to anyone like Charlotte Douglas—relations, she remains unknown in the way that many of Didion’s female characters are unknown, unknowing, and unknowable. Is she a spy? Is she completely oblivious to what’s going on around her? And in a country ruled by despots, does it matter either way?

Yet, despite the subject’s being mostly vapid and numb, they are not, for me numbing, as they could be. This is because of the poetic, graceful way Didion writes them, the believable way in which they have been stunned silent and made dumb by the world. I’m always left asking, well, who in their right mind wouldn’t be? Some have criticized Didion’s dialogue and prose as being not entirely believable. To me, the question is, is it believable in context? In other words, do I believe that the narrator would speak the way she does, and that these characters—as they are—would dialogue the way they do? For the most part, I think the answer is yes. I also know these aren’t the kinds of folks I’d find myself hanging out with.  

Didion wrote in an essay, once, that she was a woman who felt totally disconnected from the world and had lost any illusions of it—or us—being promising. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a book about disillusionment. About lack of faith in anything, but especially in lovers and in government. The one persistent strand of belief stems from a mother’s devotion to her child, despite that child seeming to be a confirmed terrorist and less than reciprocally interested in her mother. This too, for readers aware of Didion’s personal life story, will resonate, because aside from her husband, the one personal belief she did seem to hold dear was the love she had for her own daughter, Quintana.

A Book of Common Prayer spends much time considering the question of right and wrong. Characters often try to convince others that they were wrong to do, say, or think something. In the end, though, right and wrong don’t seem to matter. It’s almost as if right and wrong, and therefore true or false, have become meaningless. And that might be the entire point. Orwellian indeed.

I’m not as big a fan of Didion’s fiction as I am of her memoirs and essays/journalism, but I find many of the qualities that I like from her non-fiction do carry over. While I still think Play It As It Lays is probably her best novel, I look forward to continuing my journey through Didion’s complete works.

A Book of Common Prayer was Book 8 completed in my 2022 TBR Pile Challenge.

6 Comments on “A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

    • Fiction- Play It As It Lays. For nonfiction- The Year of Magical Thinking (memoir) or Slouching Towards Bethlehem (essays). You might also like The White Album (essays).

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  1. The Year of Magical Thinking then is where I’ll begin, that’s the question I was going to ask, since this is a writer I know I need to read!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: September Checkpoint #TBR2022RBR – Roof Beam Reader

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