October 28, 1996 12:00 PM

by Joan Didion

When the narrator of this bleak, elliptical novel introduces us to Elena McMahon, she is sitting alone in a hotel coffee shop some-where in Central America, eating a chocolate parfait and bacon. Something is clearly wrong with this picture—and with Didion’s unmoored, middle-aged heroine. A former newspaper reporter turned Hollywood wife and mother, Elena has once again cut and run, this time from her job as a Washington Post correspondent covering the 1984 presidential campaign. Volunteering to help her dying father, who has spent a lifetime making shady deals, she runs one for him, an arms shipment for the Nicaraguan Contras. It’s Didion redux here—the usual meditation on the how and why of a woman’s derailment, the random collision with politics and history, and the author’s singular style. Her tautness has its moments, but just as often her chanting refrains come off as a dull drone. (Knopf, $23)

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