(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Concerned that readers had difficulty perceiving the admirable qualities of Maria in Play It as It Lays, Didion, in A Book of Common Prayer, creates Charlotte Douglas, Maria’s equivalent, observed and analyzed by an older, scientifically trained American woman. Grace Strasser-Mendana, orphaned at a young age in the United States, is the widow of a Latin American president who was probably killed by his brother in a struggle for power. What principally keeps Grace overseas, in fictional Boca Grande, is her desire to be close to her son, Gerardo, though he too is toying with political violence. At first she is merely distracted by the antics of Charlotte Douglas, a newcomer, until she perceives parallels between their values and their lives as “outsiders” in a world trained for irresponsibility—and therefore for destruction.

Charlotte, having been raised in an overprotected, middle-class environment, cannot cope with either Warren Bogart, her first husband, who tries to compensate for his inadequacies through physically abusing others; or with Leonard Douglas, her current husband, who pretends to be a liberal lawyer but is covertly a gunrunner. She turns all of her frustrated affection on her daughter, Marin, who has become a mindless revolutionary involved in bombing buildings. Charlotte believes that Marin may surface in Boca Grande. On part of her journey south, Charlotte brings with her a premature newborn who dies of complications. Leonard, the baby’s father who cannot accept...

(The entire section is 625 words.)