A Book of Common Prayer

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

In the preface to her well-regarded essay collection entitled Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968), Joan Didion recounts that the title essay about the subculture of the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco was the first time she “had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart.” She continues to investigate this contemporary phenomenon in A Book of Common Prayer, her third and best novel. In this clarification exercise on the contemporary milieu—a world of shorn values, smashed hopes, and harsh realities—Didion through her setting, her central character, and her narrator informs the reader of the desperate state of contemporary life, of the desperate attempts of those who try to live decently on the edge of the yawning void.

Ironically, Didion’s representations of the great cosmic chill usually are set in subtropical climates—Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New Orleans—and the setting for A Book of Common Prayer is perhaps the most fitting of any for her themes. Boca Grande squats on the equator, its humid days and nights passing in a monotonous, forgettable succession of seeming changelessness. But change of one sort or another is always occurring—bacteria flourish, reproduce, and die; the natural cycles of innumerable insects continue; rust destroys automobiles and tin roofs; vegetation grows over the $34 million road built into the interior. Much is growing, but much more is rotting, from the vegetation and the cars to the people and their institutions. The country’s history, like its landscape, is utterly forgettable. Governments are overthrown so frequently and with so little meaning that only the disintegrating ruins of the monuments of previous administrations and the memories of a few people attest to their existence. Throughout all the cycles, one senses no evolution, no progressive pattern, no purpose or design to the growth and the rot, a sameness of prodigality and waste. With Boca Grande, then, Didion creates an effective metaphor of the modern environment—a world characterized by great growth and great disintegration but by no design.

To such a country comes Charlotte Douglas in search of asylum, peace, and purpose, in search of a retreat from her history. What better refuge from flux than a world that seems not to change? What better haven from a past than a country that seems to lack one? Charlotte is on the run from emotional involvements—from her former husband, Warren Bogart, a profligate parasite who, unknown to Charlotte, is near death; from her present husband, Leonard, a lawyer who seems too busy with Third World countries and leftist clients to have much time for her; from the newspapers and F.B.I. men who have constantly been hounding her for information concerning her daughter, Marin, a Berkeley dropout turned inchoate bomb-thrower; and from the baby that Charlotte had to replace Marin, a baby who was born prematurely, hydro-cephalic, and who died in the parking lot of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mérida, Mexico. From all of this, Charlotte retreats into a dream of life, a life of delusions which ironically lead her into an accidental entanglement in a political overthrow and her purposeless death. She had not expected this; she had not really anticipated any of the nightmares that afflict her; she had been unprepared for almost everything, especially the equatorial nothingness and absurdity of Boca Grande.

True, “as a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone she had been as a matter of course provided with clean sheets, orthodontia, . . . one brother named Dickie, ballet lessons, and casual timely information about menstruation and the care of flat silver”; but she never developed much clearsightedness. So naïve does Charlotte seem that her typical response to any personal, political, or historical difficulty is that everything will turn out all right in the end. “Immaculate of history, innocent of politics,” possessing instead of knowledge a great faith in the inevitability of progress and “the generally upward spiral of history,” Charlotte Douglas typifies the norteamericana. And her reaction to her own past is typical also. Instead of developing a realistic outlook, Charlotte decides instead to manipulate her history to eliminate thinking of the horrible events of her life; to stay sane, she erases rather than reconciles the pain of her betrayal of her husbands, their betrayal of her, Marin’s disownment of her, and the loss of her baby. Those that she cannot erase, she revises into delusions, myths built from fragments of reality, dreams, lies, and wishes.

Her reaction to Boca Grande is rather typical of her reactions to her past. She refuses to see it as it really is—an absurd, rotting, purposeless world—and attempts to revitalize it: first through letters she tries to sell to The New Yorker about Boca Grande as a “’land of contrasts,’” as the “’economic fulcrum of the Americas,’” as one marked by “the ’spirit of hope’ “; then through her ideas of establishing an annual...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Book of Common Prayer presents the central character, Charlotte Douglas, through the first-person narration of Grace Strasser-Mendana. Joan Didion has developed and finely honed a style which is abrupt and journalistic, stripped of any expansive descriptions or explanations. The strength of her fiction rests in this dramatic style, which she uses in this novel not only to bring the reader close to the events and characters but also to render Christian allusion, imagery, and symbolism. Sometimes through dialogue alone, she presents ironic and complex relationships. Didion makes use of Grace as a seemingly objective narrator to present the past through Charlotte’s memories—with their disordered sifting, overlapping, and repetition.

The novel relates the story of Charlotte’s journey from San Francisco to Boca Grande, a fictitious country in Central America, and her sacrificial death at the hands of undetermined assailants. Boca Grande (literally “big mouth” or “big bay”) is a place with no history and no future, only intermittent revolutionary takeovers that create no real change and make no real difference to anyone. Boca Grande is a country of dead ends, of eight-lane boulevards going nowhere, of unfinished buildings, and of collapsed causeways.

Charlotte’s arrival in Boca Grande is a last stop on a meandering journey south. She has accompanied her former husband, Warren Bogart, to New Orleans, leaving her current husband, Leonard Douglas, in San Francisco. She has...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like Didion’s other novels, A Book of Common Prayer provides a feminine perspective on both social and political issues. This novel focuses on a double perspective of two women in relation to political and social violence during the turbulent decade of the 1960’s. The antiwar revolutionary movement in the United States is ironically paralleled by the revolutionary coups in Boca Grande. Charlotte Douglas’ daughter Marin is a Patty Hearst-like revolutionary figure. Grace has a son involved in the revolution in Boca Grande, the same revolution that results in the death of Charlotte.

Didion’s use of a woman (a sometimes silly, vain, adulterous one) differs from the traditional presentation of a God figure as masculine. Charlotte Douglas is not a Christ (nor is Kesey’s McMurphy) but a Christ figure, a person who cares about other human beings and who changes the lives that she touches.

The communion and bonding between Charlotte and Grace form the greatest contribution of Didion’s novel to women’s literature. While at the surface level the two women are presented as being opposite in temperament and strength, they eventually bond and the death of one serves a meaningful purpose for the other. Both Didion’s novel and the Anglican book of sacrament for which it is named focus on communion. Didion stresses the bond between women, a bond formed by common experience, a kinship of both strength and dreams which Grace comes to recognize.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Friedman, Ellen G., ed. Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984. A collection of essays by Didion, interviews with her, and critical essays on her work by several writers. Provides a good overview of Didion’s work. The essay by Victor Strandberg on A Book of Common Prayer discusses the novel in terms of the links between the novel and W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.”

Hanley, Lynne T. “To El Salvador.” Massachusetts Review 24 (Spring, 1983): 13-29. This article discusses women writers and the experience of war and the battlefield, an experience generally limited to men. Hanley discusses the parallels between the real civil war in El Salvador, for which Didion served as a reporter, and the events in the mythical Boca Grande described in A Book of Common Prayer.

Henderson, Katherine. Joan Didion. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. Presented from a context of American culture and literature, this book examines Didion’s novels and essays as expressions of the moral dilemmas and the human failures resulting from the confrontation between traditional American values and new social and political views. The chapter on A Book of Common Prayer analyzes the novel in terms of theme, characters, and style. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Loris, Michelle Carbone. Innocence, Loss, and Recovery in the Art of Joan Didion. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. This book examines Didion’s novels as expressions of the story of the American West and her female protagonists as being compelled by a frontier vision of an Edenic life that is marred by political violence. The chapter on A Book of Common Prayer argues that the protagonist sees Boca Grande from this perspective. Includes a bibliography and an index.

Winchell, Mark Royden. Joan Didion. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Focuses on Didion’s nonfiction prose and then examines her novels in light of those essays. The chapter on A Book of Common Prayer analyzes the narrative voice used by Didion and the two women characters, Grace and Charlotte. Includes a chronology, a selected bibliography, and an index.