What to Read This Weekend: Joan Didion’s “A Book of Common Prayer”

When we talk about Joan Didion’s novels, we inevitably talk about Play It As It Lays. It seems that Play It As It Lays, published in 1970,  is the only one of her novels anyone has read.  Didion is primarily an essayist, so I understand the vagueness about her fiction. All I can say is, that if I have to spend another minute with the wispy, passive character Maria, I will scream – and I have spent hours with Maria, because people keep telling me Play It As It Lays is a masterpiece. Didion’s style is elegant and spare –  each word is resonant  of secrets in plain sight –  but  Play It As It Lays seems empty. 

Maria, the heroine, is one of those rich, purposeless, vapid women who never have to work and never make a decision without dithering.  The thing Maria likes best is driving very rapidly on the freeway, directionless and barefoot, so she doesn’t have to make a decision.  Couldn’t she become a chauffeur?  I mean, I would have liked to be an aimless, beautiful woman of whom nothing is expected, – but most of us have to work. 

I once attended a reading by Joan Didion, and was simply awed by meeting one of the best writers of the 20th century.  But I did notice, that in spite of her achievements, she seemed wispy and uncertain, a bit like  Maria. If I recall correctly, her husband, John Gregory Dunne, a novelist and screenwriter, sat protectively with her on the stage – or perhaps he simply stood very close and reassured her afterwards.   Didion’s career would suggest that she was strong and capable, able to talk to as well as observe her subjects. But then people are not what you think they are – are they?  It is easy to misinterpret.

I do love  her  third, more complex novel, A Book of Common Prayer (1977).  The principal character, Charlotte Douglas, is a flighty Maria-type, but I like Charlotte.  She is obscenely rich, but in a small Central American country she administers cholera inoculations, kills a chicken with her bare hands, bizarrely identifies different  types of assault weapons, and volunteers at a birth control clinic where she encourages the women to get diaphragms instead of IUDs (pointless, though, because there are no diaphragms).  

Charlotte is misunderstood,  so scattered, and yet so  competent.  One day she had impulsively flown to Boca Grande, a country in Central America on the brink of a coup. Charlotte knew nothing of the politics, but believes that she is only a tourist and thus will never be in any danger.  But then she doesn’t know that she on a “Persons of Interest” list, provided by the U.S. government.    Later, we find out why, though she never suspects.

The narrator,  Grace Strasser-Mendana, a retired anthropologist, an amateur student of biochemistry, is studying Charlotte.  “I will be her witness,” she says.  

Grace says of Charlotte:

She talked constantly.  She talked feverishly.  She talked as if Victor had released her from vows of silence by walking up to where she stood with Ardis Bradly and offering her a crab puff.   Every memory was “lyrical,” every denouement “hilarious,” and sometimes “ironic” as well. … She seemed to be receiving these pointless but bizarrely arresting stories out of some deep vacuum of nervous exhaustion, transmitting them dutifully in a voice soft and clear and oddly confidential. She used words as a seven-year-old would, as if she had heard them and liked their adult sound but had only the haziest idea of their meaning…


The men refer to Charlotte as  norteamericana, or norteamericana cunt. She talks to them so intimately,  jumping from one subject to the next, mentioning her family as though everyone knows them:  Warren (her first husband, a mean-spirited professor who wears out his welcome wherever they go),  her second husband, Leonard, a famous radical lawyer (“He runs guns,” she says shockingly at one point), and her daughter Marin, who they assume from her conversation is a child. But Marin is actually a member of a terrorist group, responsible for a bombing.

Charlotte has a tragic life.  In general, she doesn’t pay much attention to what others say:  she is focused on her own past.  It would seem she remembers only in flashes and small, soon-forgotten revelations.  Grace learns her history by a series of conversations with  Charlotte and Charlotte’s family:  eventually she even visits Marin, whom she recognizes from the stupid revolutionaries in her country.

I loved Charlotte. She is a tragicomic character – more tragic than comic, but no one really knows that about herself.  She has courage.  And we can’t really see quite what she knows, because occasionally she says something that implies real discernment.

And, of course, Joan Didion’s writing is superb.

4 thoughts on “What to Read This Weekend: Joan Didion’s “A Book of Common Prayer””

  1. I prefer the essays too: there we are with a brilliant pro-active radical (on the left) mind. In Showalter’s class we read Play it as It lays and saw a documentary. Showalter revealed Didion’s husband would beat her; the two get enormously drunk regularly — and tis influenced the unfortunate daughter who never broke away from them and died young of cirrhosis of the liver. It is hard to cope with the reality a group of brilliant women writers from the 30s through 80s bought into or were coerced into accepting and wrote heroines allured or victimized by sadomasochism. Thank you for this blog.

    1. I’ll have to look for the documentary. I used to prefer her essays to her fiction: I need to catch up on her “newer” work.

  2. Well, yes, Didion’s writing is superb, but so much of it reminds me of George Orwell’s story:

    “About 1928, in one of the three genuinely funny jokes that Punch has produced since the Great War, an intolerable youth is pictured informing his aunt that he intends to ‘write’. ‘And what are you going to write about, dear?’ asks the aunt. ‘My dear aunt,’ says the youth crushingly, ‘one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.’ ”

    I’ve always wondered what the other two jokes were and whether Orwell made the whole thing up himself.

    1. Didion does take herself very seriously at time. I loved “A Book of Common Prayer,” which is really very funny.

      Never heard Orwell’s Punch joke!

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