By Esther Sun
“Other than that I know only what Gerardo told me,” narrator Grace says about protagonist Charlotte in Joan Didion’s 1977 novel A Book of Common Prayer. “That she cried not for God but for Marin.”
Indeed, A Book of Common Prayer is less about religion and more about “the breakdown of a certain set of shared assumptions, a certain narrative,” in the words of David Ulin as he writes about Didion’s famous essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In A Book of Common Prayer, Grace Strasser-Mendana, a powerful widow in the fictional Latin American country Boca Grande, recounts her memories of an American woman named Charlotte Douglas who mysteriously arrives in Boca Grande and stays for several months. Later we discover that Charlotte’s teenage daughter Marin is part of a revolutionary group that has perpetrated terrorist attacks in the US. We also learn that Charlotte is in Boca Grande waiting for – and hoping that – Marin will pass through to engage with los guerrilleros there.
Notes of reflection and questioning soften Grace’s account (“I have not been the witness I wanted to be”), which unfolds less blisteringly than the narrative from Maria’s voice in Didion’s earlier novel Play It As It Lays (“I am what I am. To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point”). Because of this, and ironically also because of Grace’s numerous reminders of her stories’ secondhand nature, it is easier to trust Grace more than Maria as a reliable narrator. Perhaps Grace’s voice seems closer to Didion’s own, though I expect Didion drew inspiration for Grace and Maria both from herself.
From what I gathered, the main question Didion wants readers to ask is whether Charlotte truly is just “an outsider of romantic sensibility” or if, rather, she knows more about herself, Boca Grande, and what she is doing there than Didion initially leads us to believe. Regarding this question of Charlotte being an outsider of romantic sensibility, Grace says, “In any case I am no longer sure that she was.” Yet, after finishing the book, I am not entirely convinced that Charlotte isn’t.
Sure, there is the bare-handed chicken-killing. There is Marin. And, of course, there is the climactic death so reminiscent of Bovary, Pontellier, Karenina, and even Didion’s heroines from other novels. Charlotte’s death may not have been a directly intentional suicide, but the sense of tragedy expands even more tensely in Charlotte’s refusal to leave Boca Grande and her last call for Marin rather than God.
Charlotte’s sensibility lies in her pain, which is rooted by her knowledge, deep down, that she has lost her daughter, her infant child, and the man she loves. In contrast and simultaneous congruity, her romanticism lies in her insistence on waiting for Marin at the airport every day; her refusal to accept that her daughter is not the golden child in the Easter dress she wishes Marin still is. It is a romanticism driven by desperation, sure, but in this context “romantic” doesn’t need to imply its usual starry-eyed connotation. As far as we care, Charlotte’s actions, though tragic, are idealistic and impractical enough to be romantic. Finally, sleeping with Gerardo and befriending Grace doesn’t make Charlotte any less of an outsider to Boca Grande’s highest political circle; perhaps partially due to Grace’s persistent focus on Charlotte in the narrative, Charlotte remains a “norteamericana cunt” and an object of fascination all the way up until her last walk towards the lights at the Capilla del Mar.
What Didion has successfully convinced me of, however, is the disillusionment, the worldview breakdown, and the “proof that things fall apart” for her characters in A Book of Common Prayer, just as she documented in Slouching Toward Bethlehem and later expanded on in Play It As It Lays. There is a common sense of hopelessness – a common disheartening lack of direction in her characters’ lives that is perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of her fiction. Maybe this disillusionment that so tragically characterized the 60s and 70s is what helps Didion’s striking, brazen, staunchly self-aware voice shine. Maybe, as she relays this disillusionment through her narrative, her voice is what makes the disillusionment so tragic.