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A Book of Common Prayer

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  3,506 ratings  ·  330 reviews
Writing with the telegraphic swiftness and microscopic sensitivity that have made her one of our most distinguished journalists, Joan Didion creates a shimmering novel of innocence and evil.A Book of Common Prayer is the story of two American women in the derelict Central American nation of Boca Grande. Grace Strasser-Mendana controls much of the country's wealth and knows ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published April 11th 1995 by Vintage International (first published 1977)
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Juanita De Vittorio Perhaps Didion was referring to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. At one point Charlotte says, and Grace later echoes, that she doesn't know what sh…morePerhaps Didion was referring to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. At one point Charlotte says, and Grace later echoes, that she doesn't know what she gets points for. What prayers matter? All the main characters lead such different lives, with different purposes and roles. Charlotte is the odd one out, the one that seems to be living the unexamined life, yet in the end, maybe they all are.(less)

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Brian
Oct 15, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Didion is one of those rare authors that pens hypnotic sentences that weave into paragraphs that make you struggle to recall where you are and why there's drool on your chin. It doesn't matter if she's writing about a fictional banana republic or a non-fictional bout of depression from having outlived her husband and daughter, JD writes sentences that I want to climb into like a warm bed. Ones like this:

As a child of the western United States she had been provided as well with faith in the va
...more
Eric
Read this for the superbly nasty Warren Bogart, a villain righteous in his contempt, critically intricate in his abuse, and for that worthy of the narrator's single sympathetic glance his way. Charlotte Douglas, his ex-wife, is the kind of female character Didion is known for: numb, baffled, drifting in and out. I don't find characters like Charlotte very interesting, but Didion does milk a kind of poetry from their stunting and disappointment, their air of unfulfillment; and Didion's portraits ...more
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
Bill
As I had recently read The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion, I decided I' wanted to read some of Joan Didion's novels. This is the first one I read.

It's mainly set somewhere in Central America, about an American woman who is living there, for reasons which are never really fully explained, and narrated by another woman who owns almost the whole place.

It's really kind of a strange novel, without much in the way of a discernible plot, and the dialogue is really weird, with most of it not
...more
Nate D
Apr 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Like Play It As It Lays, this is a supremely disillusioned novel -- in people, in politics -- but the theater across which it plays out is sprawling and unique, from the pitch black personal-destructive recesses of the deep south to the revolutionary conflagrations of a small South American dictatorship. Ostensibly the story is Charlotte's, a complexly-shaded women adrift in her life until she washes up in Boca Grande, but equally fascinating, and obsessively observed, is our narrator, Grace, an ...more
Cymru Roberts
Mar 07, 2016 rated it liked it
Maybe there is no motive role in this narrative.
Maybe it is just something that happened.
Then why is it in my mind when nothing else is.


IN SUMMARY the above quote explains the entire novel. Of course “novel” is a loaded word when it comes to Didion; her journalistic essays and her fiction-prose always blur, which makes for awesome journalism and perplexing prose. I am perplexed as to why this novel exists. When I was finished with it – and I was glad that I was; too much time spent in such a sti
...more
Steve
Oct 26, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, i-spy
Several times during Joan Didion's Book of Common Prayer, one character will tell another that they "were wrong." In what almost seems irrelevant. Causes, love, politics, are all compromised. Wrongness is an empty term hardly worth the air it takes to utter the word. Nearly everyone is on the make. Lawyers can champion radical movements one day, hobnob with the beautiful people that night, and fly to Miami the next in order to seal a deal for Mirage jets. Air head college students join revolutio ...more
Sentimental Surrealist
The way I see it, Joan Didion's career breaks into three big phases. In the '60s and '70s, she made her name as the chronicler of how the dominant culture and counterculture clashed and coexisted - you get this from her famous collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album (my favorite of hers), as well as her only novel to slip into the canon, Play It as It Lays. Then the global tumult of the '80s hit, with the Shah and the unholy right-wing alliance of Ronald "Satan" Reagan and Ma ...more
Sharonlee
Oct 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Donna
Nov 22, 2013 rated it did not like it
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.
Mason
Dec 08, 2006 rated it it was amazing  ·  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.
Charles
Jul 14, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Adam
Mar 01, 2011 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: Young women trying to 'find themselves' in Central America
Recommended to Adam by: Chelsey
Shelves: fiction, caribbean
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
Francesca Marciano
Mar 27, 2017 rated it liked it
I read this book a long time ago. I remember liking it much more then than I did now. I loved The Year of magical thinking, I loved Blue Nights and South and West. But here, in this early fictional work, her voice sounds too contrived, her writing seems forced, too removed. The repetitions. The short sentences. I felt an affectation that irked me. So three stars because i can't deny it, Didion is a masterful writer nevertheless.
christa
Jan 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I’ve read a lot of Joan Didion in my life, but sometime in November after seeing her nephew’s documentary about her, “The Center Will Not Hold,” I decided to read her again from start to finish. I like how she writes and I think she’s an enigma. I mean, do these stories have a touch of autobiographical? I’m dying to know. The Joan Didion Project is essays, novels, rewatching the movies she co-wrote with her late-husband. So far what I’ve learned is that “Play it as it Lays” is a better book than ...more
Matt
Jan 04, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Chris
Jun 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: general-fiction
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
Craig
Dec 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Vikas
Oct 14, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was a tale of a life story told by someone else who didn't actually know the person. The story opens up with the some confessions and then in few parts we come to know the story as per the knowledge of the narrator.

Very nice tale and a funny thing, I took a refuge from "The Vampire's Diary" series to read this book and lo and behold there's a character called Elena in this book too, though admittedly not a huge part just few mentions in passing.

This was set in a fictional central Amer
...more
Jeff Jackson
Jul 24, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club-1
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
Rebecca SC
Jun 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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.
Matthew Wilder
Jan 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Teresa
Feb 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Finished this within 1-2 days and then immediately proceed to watch the documentary on Didion. I would only be this obsessed with a 5 star novel. But I will try to explain why I was so drawn to this story...

"A Book of Common Prayer" is definitely a book that requires slow digestion; I am still trying to process everything that I just read. There are so many fine details scattered throughout that I felt like I was reading a whodunit novel (and not the dense literary fiction that I had expected).
...more
astried
May 03, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010
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
Nori
Mar 30, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Chris
Jul 23, 2015 rated it liked it
This book tells the story of a dysfunctional bourgeois family, with the seventies era Berkeley dropout daughter going terrorist, her globetrotting mom searching for "something," her self-righteous and bombastic dad, and a seemingly kind step-dad who is professionally a not-so-kind internationally-connected power lawyer. Didion is a talented writer, and while the style might seem less innovative, and at times repetitive, to certain contemporary eyes and ears, this book was cleverly arranged to de ...more
Colin Anton
May 11, 2014 rated it liked it
A week of uncommon prayer:

"Dear God, is there any likable characters in this book?"
"Dear God, will there be a plot? Please, I beseech and implore you..."


An interesting character study of a feminine soulless spirit at its worst (the spirit, not the character study). Ruminations of apathy and mortality, motherhood and marriage, American expatriatism and Latin chauvinism, and most of all, running from the past only to unfortunately meet it in the future. Not uplifting. Wish I had read it during a s
...more
Betsy
Mar 06, 2015 rated it it was ok
A skillfully written but oddly unlikeable book detailing the crossed paths of a cold, analytical narrator and the star of the show, Charlotte Douglas. Charlotte is puppet and heroine, burned out trophy wife and battered survivor, ignorant of history and literature, but constantly reading. She drifts in and out of stores, in and out of beds, and in and out of reality. I will probably add a star or two as I realize that I am continuing to think about the book long after finishing it, but I did not ...more
Noah Goats
Apr 25, 2019 rated it liked it
The characters in this novel have the curious habit of talking past each other constantly. They just exchange long sequences of non sequiturs in a way that actual humans almost never do. It feels like a forced sort of artiness and grates on the reader.

Charlotte is a very flat and lifeless character. The blows she’s taken from modern life have wrung her out, reducing her to an automaton, shuffling through history towards her eventual doom. This book is a despairing cry against bad governments an
...more
Jenny Esots
Apr 26, 2014 rated it liked it
Not sure this book knows what it is trying to say.
It meanders back and forth.
We hear about Charlotte, Marin, Grace, Warren, Leonard and a host of others.
But who was Charlotte?
A socialite? A kept woman?
She seems to have let other people do most of the living and just floated along in search of what?
There is great skill and acumen in developing undesirable characters.
But did I really want to take this ride?
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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.

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