Joan Didion

A Book of Common Prayer

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A Book of Common Prayer Summary

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A Book of Common Prayer is a 1977 novel by American novelist and essayist Joan Didion. Set in the fictional Central American state of Boca Grande, it is told by an American expat, Grace Strasser-Mendana, who moves there to join her husband’s wealthy and dynastic political family. The novel’s principal character is Charlotte Douglas, another American whom Grace meets during her travels. While Grace is dying of cancer, Charlotte searches for her daughter, Marin, who has run off to join a Marxist political group. The two women form a singular friendship that is defined partly by their dually outsider and insider perspectives on Central America. The book is notable for its resonances with Didion’s 1983 work, Salvador, after which Boca Grande is loosely modeled. Like Salvador, A Book of Common Prayer considers the blight of violence and political corruption that saturates geopolitics in some areas of Central America.

The narrator’s voice is uncommon in that it is not purely descriptive: almost like a social scientist, Grace systematically analyzes the world around her. She is particularly interested in the psyche of Charlotte Douglas because she sees much of herself in her. At the beginning of the novel, Grace is in Boca Grande, a city troubled by political turmoil and poverty. Her husband, now deceased, was once the president of Boca Grande. When he died, he left Grace with a large fortune, including vast areas of land. Though Grace has thoughts of returning to America, she remains in order to be near her son, a revolutionary figure. Like Grace, Charlotte is married to a renowned figure with dark secrets. Her husband is a lawyer by day and an arms and ammunition trafficker by night. To make things worse, Charlotte’s daughter has mistakenly put her trust in a Marxist group that helped orchestrate a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Charlotte returns to the airport on a daily basis, clinging to her last bit of hope that she will see Marin there. In her profound stress, she develops an amphetamine addiction.

Charlotte dives into Boca Grande hoping to find Marin, who is now in hiding from the FBI after hijacking a jet. Her race against the clock is similar to Grace’s, for though Grace’s child is safe, her cancer diagnosis has put her on a desperate and fruitless search for meaning. Grace and Charlotte encounter many injured and poor people, often stopping to care for them. For the first stretch, Charlotte is joined by her first husband, Warren, who also happens to be dying of cancer. After Warren dies, Charlotte scatters his ashes throughout Boca Grande.

As Grace’s friendship with Charlotte deepens, she starts to see her not just as a desperate woman, but as a mother and a compassionate soul who is experiencing shock after shock. The country teeters on the brink of another civil war caused by Grace’s brothers-in-law, who keep sending each other public threats. During the war’s tragic onset, while tending to the wounded, Charlotte is mortally wounded. As she lies dying, she calls for Marin. At the novel’s close, Grace, now close to death herself, memorializes her friend. She remembers her as a resilient woman who never gave up trying to unite her family despite it being cast into the riptide of Central American politics. Despite the monumental complexity of the worlds they inhabit, A Book of Common Prayer ends with validation of its protagonists’ simple core values.