No longer knowing where the real points are

This is my review of A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion.

Cynical and hard-boiled Grace Strasser-Mendana is the widow of the former President of the coconut palm Central American Republic of Boca Grande. Having married into one of the island’s “three or four solvent families”, she stays on to manage affairs for her seemingly weak and incompetent relatives, instead of returning to her native North America. Perhaps because she is an anthropologist by training, she becomes fascinated by the Charlotte Douglas, a “norteamericana” like herself who has come to Boca Grande as a tourist, as part of the abortive search for her daughter Marin, who has unaccountably rejected her privileged background to become an anti-capitalist terrorist. Charlotte seems neurotic, at times even crazy, by turns either aimlessly drifting through life via casual affairs or throwing herself with bursts of frenetic energy into do-gooding missions.

At first, I expected this to be a Graham Greene style political-cum-psychological drama. I may have missed something, but for me it turned out to be an endless portrayal of Charlotte’s intense and troubled relationship with two dominating husbands: needy, abusive even violent when drunk, Warren, who perhaps uses alcohol to blank out mental pain and sickness, and the suave, wise-cracking, control-freak lawyer Leonard.

I was initially entertained by the spiky dialogues at cross-purposes, which read like a bizarre mixture of Coward and Pinter, mini playscripts in the series of short chapters. However, once I “had the measure” of the mainly quite unappealing characters, their flaws exaggerated to the point of caricature, there seemed to be no further development and I began to find the novel tedious. In the sketchy plot, many questions remain unanswered, but perhaps "what happens" isn't the point.

I have read that Joan Didion took great pains to hone her work, but although distinctive and original with some passages of remarkably expressive clarity, the overall effect is so contrived, with a mantra-like (prayer book-book like?) repetition of staccato phrases, often included more for rhythmic sound than sense, that it forms a barrier preventing real engagement with the characters. “Charlotte’s breakfasts at the Caribe. Charlotte went to the Caribe for breakfast every morning for a while. She went to the Caribe for breakfast because….” Or another paragraph hypnotically repeating the words “Porter” and “Pontchartrain”.

There is the additional niggling problem with the point of view, since writing in the first person, it is quite implausible that the narrator Grace can reproduce so precisely Charlotte's thoughts, experiences and intimate conversations with others – or perhaps we are meant to think that much of the story is in Grace's imagination.

I agree with those who have found the characters too superficial and cut off from normal “real life” for one to care about them, the only emotion being irritation over their self-absorption. It seems that Joan Didion herself led a somewhat artificial life staying and partying in the houses of Hollywood celebrities, drinking heavily, all of which may have led her to create scenes to which most readers find it hard to relate. We are sucked into anticipating the gradual revelation of plot fragments for us to piece together, but the tendency to tell us what is going to befall Charlotte is the death knell to dramatic tension.

I am left uncertain as to what the author was trying to say about the world through the medium of this unprepossessing cast with their entertaining if stylised, sterile conversations. Although she may have chosen to write novels because of the scope they gave her to be inventive, her sardonic, detached style seems to lend itself more to biting journalism.

While continually sensing her talent, I became impatient with the brittle, shallow use to which it is put.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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