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Joan Didion: A Book of Common Prayer

The novel is set in the fictitious Central American country of Boca Grande (it means big mouth). It is narrated by Grace Strasser-Mendana, née Tabor, who tells the story of Charlotte Douglas. Grace was an anthropologist before marrying a rich coconut planter. When he dies, she inherits a large part of the country and its decision-making process. She is now sixty and ill with cancer. Charlotte had been married to Warren Bogart, an English teacher at Berkeley. They had had a child, Marin, who had been a caring teenager and turned out to be a terrorist, setting off a pipe bomb and hijacking a plane. Charlotte is reluctant to face up to the reality of what her daughter has done and tries to convince herself that they have a fine mother-daughter relationship and that Marin is merely off skiing. Charlotte has been married again, to Leonard Douglas, a lawyer, and had become pregnant with his child. But she leaves Leonard to go back to Warren. They travel around the South but she again leaves Warren and goes to New Orleans and gives birth to the child who is unfortunately hydrocephalic and dies. She then goes off to Boca Grande. She herself is killed by a random shot in one of Boca Grande’s regular revolutions.

This novel had both considerable critical and commercial success, though I do not think it her best. It deals with a favourite Didion theme, that of mother-children relationships. More importantly, Charlotte is the standard North American who really does not know what is going on around her. She has been cocooned most of her life, avoiding anything that smacks of politics, despite having been at Berkeley, having married a man involved in international arms deals and having a daughter who is an urban terrorist. While at Berkeley she had mainly read the Brontës and Vogue and visited the library only once – to visit an exhibition of glass flowers. She recalled having liked the glass flowers. In other words, she is out of touch with reality and going to a country which, according to Grace has no history, does not help. Her life, as her death, just happen to her, with little control on her part. Another typical Didion heroine.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Simon & Schuster