A Book of Common Prayer Summary
by Joan Didion

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A Book of Common Prayer Summary

The 1977 novel A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion mainly focuses on analyzing the lives of its central characters. It is written in such a way that the narrator acts almost as a sociologist, especially because the narrator, American expatriate Grace Strasser-Mendana, is a trained observer who studied anthropology under the famous Claude Levi-Strauss and later delved into the study of biochemistry. The novel's main character, Charlotte Douglas—also an American—has some similarities to Grace, which leads her to invest a personal curiosity in the woman's quest.

Grace lives in Boca Grande, a fictional foreign nation in Central America that is quite impoverished and constantly in the midst of political upheaval. Her late husband, a member of the powerful Mendana family, was the one-time president and held vast swathes of land, which has left Grace fairly wealthy—as well as privy to most of the country's secrets. She remains in Boca Grande to be close to her son, who is a revolutionary. Charlotte, similar to Grace, is married to an arms trafficker disguised as a successful lawyer, and her eighteen-year-old daughter has similarly gotten mixed up with a group of Marxist revolutionaries and helped to perpetrate a terrorist act in San Francisco.

As Charlotte searches for her daughter in Boca Grande, she develops a kinship with Grace, and they form a quasi-family, relying on one another much more than they rely on their other family members (including Charlotte's current husband). Unfortunately, Grace is dying from terminal cancer, so their friendship will certainly not last long.

While Charlotte is fruitlessly searching the country for Marin, her daughter, political unrest once again throws the country into turmoil, and Charlotte and Grace turn to tending to the ill and injured. While doing this, Charlotte is struck perilously, calling out in vain for her daughter while she perishes. In this moment, Grace sees her own life typified by Charlotte—seeking after others and trying to protect her family, while slowly losing a battle with revolution and death. She ends her observations by memorializing and celebrating Charlotte in her words, vowing to remember her because of her perseverance and devotion to her family and her cause, while trying to make her life better and separate herself from the painful relationships in which she was entrenched.


(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 imperfection, wanted to let it die in a clinic. Charlotte, in contrast, writes on her visa application...

(The entire section is 1,007 words.)