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A Book of Common Prayer

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3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  1,766 ratings  ·  153 reviews
In this Conradian masterpiece of American innocence and evil set in the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande, two American women face the harsh realities, political and personal, of living on the edge in a land with an uncertain future. Writing with her signature telegraphic swiftness, the author creates a terrifying commentary on an age of conscienceless auth...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published April 11th 1995 by Vintage International (first published 1977)
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Jessica
This starts out feeling like one of those Deborah Eisenberg stories set in a made-up Central American country, but pretty soon you orient yourself and realize you're in deliciously dated late-1970s Didionland. This entails being surrounded by characters who think, speak, and behave only like Joan Didion characters and not remotely like anyone in actual life, and reading gorgeously crafted and sometimes embarrassingly dramatic sentences. The novel is narrated by steely, Didionesque observer Grace...more
Juanita Rice

A Book of Common Prayer, although it is Joan Didion's third novel, is a relatively early book (1977) for she is still working today in 2012. What I enjoy most about it is what I also loved about her later book Democracy : a distinctive style that orchestrates and shapes, using white space as silence. She herself has written about her fixation on arrangements of words, on sentences themselves.

Didion also communicates essentials about characters through a focus on externals: actions, words spoke...more
Sharonlee
Wonderful book. Didion is a genius. It's interesting to read something that was written so long ago, it seems another lifetime--and yet I was alive when it was written. The times were a-changing and the world that they lived in was so very different from what it became by the time I was an adult.

At some point, I was struck by some similarities between this book and another book that I really loved, Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Neither is a real, named place (although Bel Canto seems to be based o...more
Charles
In some ways, similar to American Pastoral by Roth. Both with psychologically tormented protagonists, both with demented terrorist daughters. The drawback to A Book of Common Prayer is that Joan Didion's characters and narrator are lofty and bourgeoisie, but are also cold and hard to identify with. Charlotte Douglas is not as tormented nor driven as The Swede, and Marin never develops into a character with any substance, let alone the brilliance, like Merry's.

Maybe I am daft, but I did not feel...more
Mason
Dec 08, 2006 Mason rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all
First of all, despite the title, this is not a Christian book about praying and shit like that. It’s a novel about human dislocation and the intractability of delusion, set against the backdrop of Central American revolution. Didion is best known for her nonfiction, but I proselytize for her novels every chance I get.
orsodimondo
IL LIBRO DELLE PREGHIERE
Il libro delle preghiere comuni è il testo base della comunione anglicana.
Mi chiedo se le preghiere comuni sono quelle più semplici, o invece comuni sta per collettive.
E mi chiedo cosa abbia a che fare con questo romanzo.
Domanda che rimane senza risposta, un grosso punto interrogativo dalla prima all’ultima pagina. Mai incontrato titolo più enigmatico.

Mi ha colpito la sensazione che in questo racconto di una donna narrato da un’altra donna, Didion sappia esattamente c...more
Matt
If _Play It as It Lays_ was Didion doing Chandler, this is her version of a Graham Greene novel, whereby a sophisticated viewer in a small former colony (in this case the Latin American Boca Grande) learns that the naivete of a stranger is the proper way to encounter the world.

Here, the sophisticate is the American-born wife of a former dictator of Boca Grande, and the innocent abroad is Charlotte, mother of a girl gone radical terrorist in the sixties, who has washed up in Boca Grande for, well...more
Adam
Mar 15, 2011 Adam rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Young women trying to 'find themselves' in Central America
Recommended to Adam by: Chelsey
Shelves: caribbean, fiction
I just, didn't get it. Yes, it's a eulogy and there's a lot going on and Charlotte was kind of a crack pot of a person and her life was a reflection of that, but, I just, didn't get it.

I was excited to read Didion's acclaimed fiction after having been passed an essay she wrote that I found particularly vivid. However, I was disappointed in her storytelling, which, honestly is likely only personal preference.

The past few novels I've read have been epic-realistic-tales. I got frustrated reading Ke...more
Rebecca SC
This is one of my favorite books of all time. Joan Didion has an incredible way of crafting flawed yet accessible people, with incredibly beautiful and resonant language that is not overly complicated. She uses the words she needs to give you the ideas she has. I wish I still had the copy I read in college, marked with highlights and comments written on almost every page. I devoured this book, I didn't just read it, and many of her images and turns of phrase have lasted with me to this day.
Donna
I can't remember the last time I was as grateful for a book to finally end. I think the author gave us a hint on page 164: "Maybe there is no motive role in this narrative." I really, really didn't enjoy the assumptive characters or their privileged drama. I wouldn't spend ten minutes in the company of anyone in this book in real life, so I'm not sure why I did spend so much time reading about them.
Chris
This was originally published on The Scrying Orb.

Joan Didion is one of my favorite authors and working through her fiction, I can basically bullet-point what a book will contain:

- A detached heroine, probably in her thirties. A woman becoming unhinged.
- Cruel men in positions of power over the heroine, who have jobs that give them financial and social clout that allow them to be 100% assholes without much consequence (lawyers, producers, etc). The men may be just as detached as the women, but...more
astried
Imagine looking at an artist at work. He begins with pencil sketch on an empty paper. Right now with a little imagination we can see what he’s trying to draw, that circle maybe the head, flowing line for hair, the outline of body, arm, feet. Then he picks up his pen. Our artist might decide to start from the face; he has a very clear image in his mind so he works straight away in detail. Eyes, nose, mouth, expression, face outline emerge. Next he moves his hand starting to give detail to locks o...more
Patrick McCoy

It seems to me that Joan Didion's fiction is much more hit and miss than her nonfiction writing. However, I am pleased to say that A Book Of Common Prayer (1977) is one of her hits. It tells the tale of American Charlotte Douglas' exile in the fictional Boca Grande (a thinly disguised Salvador I suspect) as told by Grace Strasser-Mendana, a woman controls much of the country's wealth and knows virtually all of its secrets. It is a complex story full of flashbacks and real time events that are sp...more
Jamie
O, how I adore Didion. For whatever reason, found myself surprised that I also enjoyed a novel of hers. The prose itself is very "typical Didion," but the narrative itself strikes me as far stranger than her non-fiction. Seems Didion tends toward the penetrative (in the sense of cutting through the b.s., not whatever your dirty mind was going to in that damned gutter!), whereas this novel invested most of its energy in the unknowable. Charlotte Douglas is one of the most bizarre characters I've...more
Beth
Nov 06, 2007 Beth rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who like Joan Didion's writing.
I started reading Joan Didion about a year or two ago. I tend to prefer her non-fiction (The White Album being a favorite) to her fiction, but overall I just enjoy her writing style. Her style tends to be meandering, not quite stream-of-conscious and definitely not linear. That makes her extremely successful at evoking mood, amiance and a general sense of time (especially the writing that she did in the 60's). For that reason it almost doesn't matter what the subject matter is. Style become much...more
Nori
Easily the most depressing thing I've read in years (with the possible exception of the collected stories of Amy Hempel, which, as the NYT review says, should not be read all in one go). Woman lives life barely connected to it, dissembles, is used, lives life of quiet desperation, eventually ends up in soul-crushing tropics to die.

I CAN'T FINISH IT. No really, I don't do this with books, but I'm stopping with 100 pages to go. Sorry, Charlotte, I just can't bring myself to see what (or rather, h...more
Jeff Jackson
The first time I read this, the Latin American scenes stayed with me, but this time I was knocked out by the travelogue section set in the Deep South, which weirdly kept evoking moments from the banned Rolling Stones tourfilm 'Cocksucker Blues.' Then there's the great New Orleans dinner party scene, which is as vivid as anything in 'The Moviegoer.'

There's so many loaded cultural details packed into the prose and the story accumulates in such odd spasms that this isn't nearly as immediate as 'De...more
Jeremiah
I picked up A Book of Common Prayer for the author (whom I knew only as an essayist) and the title, with its promise of religious significance, liturgy, and universality. I just finished the book an hour ago, and I'm still puzzled by the title. The book does speak to universally human things, most especially our capacity to remember the past, experience the present, and anticipate the future with a willful but entirely convincing selectiveness. Characters are all the time remembering the past as...more
Suzanne
I first heard of this when I read The End of Your Life Book Club . The author's mother loved this book, and I couldn't put that out of my mind. So, when I walked into my local library a few weeks ago, and saw it sitting on a shelf as I walked in the door, it was almost as if there were a golden shaft of light shining down on it. I picked it up this morning and thought it might be a quick read. I was right.

The book is narrated by Grace, an American woman living in the fictional country of Boca G...more
Shaun
If you've read her essays, you know that Joan Didion has a unique, almost meandering writing style that tends to arrive at sharp points in delightfully roundabout ways. Her novels are no different, but the style becomes more problematic as finding the plot effectively an attempt to string those points together. The result of this effort does lead to finding a plot, but not a very compelling one. Characters remain fuzzy. Lives, though tragic, remain unexamined. No character seems to change or fin...more
Christopher
I could not, for the life of me, remember why Edgar Cayce's name was fresh in my mind. It took a google search for me to remember one of this novel's best scenes. The protagonist (Charlotte) has a daughter (Marin) who has gone missing after participating, Patty Hearst like, in a revolutionary/terrorist hijacking of a plane. Soon she gets phone calls to her house:
"A man who described himself as a disillusioned Scientologist called Charlotte to say that Marin was under the influence of a Clear in...more
Sarah
This was a re-read for me this year. A Book of Common Prayer was the first of Didion's novels that I read and it is certainly my favourite. I particularly enjoy the way Didion employs the cultural differences between Boca Grande and the United States. This novel is quintessential Didion and I liked it even more upon this re-read.
Christopher
I am not always a fan of Didion's fiction, but this book was exceptional. Warren Bogart is one of the ugliest characters I have ever read, and I mean that as a compliment.
Adam Tramposh
A charming, tropical meditation on the gaping vacuums that exist in our consciences. Didion writes in the voice of someone who is always calm – it is like a lullaby.
Lynne
3.5 star read.

I liked this book. I thought it was written almost sparingly - Didion didn't waste words, sentences, paragraphs. She just created a place and time that worked really well.

I trusted the narration right from the start since it was Grace telling us Charlotte's story. Grace fully admitted to a certain ignorance of events, or the learning of them second-hand. However it all felt authentic.

The story reminded me somewhat of Bel Canto -both take place in a made-up South American country. T...more
Sarah
I will read this book at least once a year.

Just read it.
Tamara Dahling
Joan Didion's writing, sparse, eloquent, & beautiful, always leaves me satisfied but wanting more. I finished this novel and immediately turned to page one and reread the first few chapters. In this book, Didion weaves the stories of two women whose lives intersect in a fictional Central/ South American country rife with revolutionary activity, a daughter sought by the FBI, an ex-husband, and so much more. And yet, that's not really what the book is about, but that's the enjoyment of a book...more
Craig
A bit inflated of a score but meant to be taken in the context of what I'm reading lately. A book about awful people who are more than a bit off-putting and unrelatable in their Carribean bourgeoisie. Yet a book that makes fewer pretenses about being a Great American Novel than similarly structured plots in our literature. I found it to be reminiscent of American Pastoral but enjoyed the women's narration and subjective focus. Maybe it seems a bit dated reading it now, with plane travel so easy...more
Doug
I really liked Joan Didion's snappy, witty style. Charlotte Douglas, the star of the book, doesn't seem as sharp as the narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana, but we come to see Charlotte's own brand of intelligence poking through later on it the book. The witty conversations in the book reminded me of old movies with Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable, except all the wit was coming from female characters and the males tended to be dopes or, if witty, self-absorbed assholes. Charlotte's first husband War...more
Jasmine Woodson
I enjoyed this a lot. Blessed pecking sparrows, Didion’s prose. Her prose. It’s so tight, so spare, so, as they say (I think) “muscular”. I think that I use this term differently that others do. Her sentences aren’t knuckles against your forehead--it’s far more gently realized than that. But make no mistake, the way this woman uses words has a precise surety to it that feels very definite, even though the sentiment the words are conveying, the rendering of another woman’s life by an observer, ar...more
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Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She's best known for her novels and her literary journalism.

Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.
More about Joan Didion...
The Year of Magical Thinking Slouching Towards Bethlehem Play It as It Lays Blue Nights The White Album

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“I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos.” 1 likes
“I think I have never known anyone who led quite unexamined a life.” 0 likes
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