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Last Reviewed on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

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.

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

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 “Occupation: mother.”

Gradually Grace comes to understand Charlotte’s innocence and goodwill, to empathize with this woman in shock, and to recover her own capacity for the compassion that helps define human purpose. The two women become, in effect, a substitute family. When Grace’s brothers-in-law engage once again in coup and counter-coup, and refugees flee, Charlotte remains behind to tend the sick and wounded. She is slain. Dying, she cries out not for herself but for Marin. Grace is also dying, of cancer, yet is the only person other than Charlotte devoted to life. Therefore, as principal narrator of A Book of Common Prayer, she memorializes this other woman who, though considered comic by society, struggled so heroically to rise above circumstances. It is Charlotte’s resilience, not her victimization, that Grace is celebrating.

Didion, a lapsed Episcopalian, still retains respect for rituals from her childhood, and she considers this novel the equivalent of Grace’s prayer for the essential goodness in Charlotte. If Boca Grande symbolizes the danger of failing to come to terms with history (that is, the consequences of human actions) and therefore of being doomed to repeat its mistakes, the novel’s reliance on psalms and litanies implies a divinely orchestrated design to life, epitomized by the connection between Grace and Charlotte. The novel also functions as Grace’s prayer of thanksgiving for Charlotte’s inadvertent restoration of Grace to a faith in humankind, in spite of all its errors and horrors.

That appeal to something eternal is paralleled by the time structure in this novel. The chronicle of events is only rarely linear. Instead, distant past, present, and near future tend to be looped together. At first this seeming disorder of cause and effect, as well as of chronology, conveys both the instability of Latin politics and the disconnectedness between Charlotte and reality. Eventually, however, what is conveyed is a kind of continuous present, with history the sum of all coexistent times. The loops become a sequence of knots, implying an eternal realization of what temporarily seems confused. The technique is moralist Didion’s way of warning Americans that no one is immune from human events, from effects that he or she partially has caused.

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