If ever there was a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, this is it. Didion commands huge respect, mainly for her non-fiction writing, but she does not reciprocate with respect for the reader.
This is one of those books which are written with an eye on the US EngLitt academic industry. You can see her inserting her significance and saying "Now pick up on that!" In other words, this is not an organic book but extremely contrived.
The narrator, Grace, is a long-time resident of a fictive Central American republic, Boca Grande, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. She is drawn to a fleeing American, Charlotte, who for mysterious reasons decides to take root in this corrupt banana republic that has no bananas. Charlotte has had a tough life - her daughter has turned into a Patty Hearst-like figure (this was written in the mid-70s), she gives birth to a baby which immediately has a long and painful death; she has two abusive husbands who keep turning up. But she starts an affair with Grace's son, for no very good reason.
I could write that phrase, "for no very good reason" over and over. Why do the husbands pursue her? Why does she entertain them for a moment? Why does the daughter turn terrorist? Why is Grace so drawn to Charlotte? Why? Why? Why? Every character in the book is shadowy, with the possible exception of the extremely nasty alcoholic first husband, Warren.
There are so many things wrong with this novel that it's difficult to know where to start. First, the much-praised writing style, which goes something like this:
Joan had to write a sentence.
A profound sentence. She wanted it significant.
SIGNIFICANT. (That should be in italics but I can't do that in Amazon)
She had nothing to say.
But she had to write it.
She wanted it significant. (Italics again)
Now, anyone who has to write like that in order to draw attention to the import of what they are saying, isn't doing their job properly. If I don't get the point, putting it in italics is not going to make me.
Secondly, there's the setting. The portrait of Boca Grande, with its routine revolutions and changes of dictators, is, if not actively racist, so much a Hollywood cliche that it is comic. Graham Greene did this sort of thing so much better. Didion is trapped in an American imperialist vision which drains her setting of any kind of credibility. Which also takes credibility from the death of Charlotte, shot in one of the revolutions when she refuses to leave with everyone else who sees what's coming.
Thirdly, there's the problem of Grace. I think what Didion is trying to do, as the title suggests, is to give a portrait of someone dying, who is searching for meaning in another death, in order to give her own life and death meaning. But she fluffs it. On the one hand, she gives Grace as narrator access to details, incidents and feelings which she could not possibly know. On the other, she emphasises her own unreliability, and there is much play with the impossibility of knowing or remembering anything. The last line of the book is, "I have not been the witness I wanted to be." It seems to me you can't have it both ways.
There is a kind of savage humour here, which is a redeeming feature. Except that it is a belittling humour displayed by a narrator about a character to whom she is meant to be irresistably drawn. The narrative is arbitrary, by which I mean that any narrative tension derives from withholding information, rather than being inherent in character or situation. It's a fundamentally lazy technique.
This is not an easy read, and frankly the rewards simply aren't there. Worse, this book is liable to make you quite angry at wasting your time and being treated with contempt. To quote Dorothy Parker again: "This is not a book to be lightly dismissed - it should be thrown aside with great force."