Book Review: Play It as It Lays
Author: Joan Didion
Published: 2005 (Originally 1970)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Number of Pages: 213
My Rating: 3
Summary from GoodReads.com:
A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Play It as It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that blisters and haunts the reader. Set in a place beyond good and evil – literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of an arid soul – it remains more than three decades after its original publication a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crisis and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.
I originally discovered Play It as It Lays on a list of books that everyone should read at some point in their life. Thinking this was a pretty prestigious distinction, I quickly tried to find it in a local store or thrift shop. Turns out, this book was a lot harder to find than others (not even on Kindle!), making me want it that much more.
A novel in snippets, Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays begins with three passages that are narrated in first person by three of the main characters- Maria, her husband Carter, and their friend Helene. The rest of the book is comprised of 84 pieces of lyrical prose written in the third person from Maria’s point of view. What emerges from these pieces is a glimpse into the blurry world of a depressed, would-be starlet, wife, and mother whose world has essentially fallen apart and stopped.
It seemed to me that Maria is an actress with nothing but a lot of money and a lot of time on her hands. She is a beautiful woman with blank eyes that cares about nothing and no one. Her world is bleak and is one you shouldn’t visit for too long otherwise it will completely suck the life out of you. This book made me feel the same way that The Bell Jar did- totally hopeless.
Aside from the beautiful lyrical prose Didion presents, I think the inner struggle in Maria is what makes the story worth reading. The book covers topics such as depression, drugs, abortion, and affairs. Keep in mind that this book first came out in the 1970’s, and think of what a shock this must have been. I imagine women and their friends secretly passed this book around in a shushed manner, gossiping and discussing the taboo topics Didion covered.
This book was the hangover of a 1970’s Hollywood party- the booze wasn’t strong enough, cars not fast enough, and people not interesting enough anymore. There was bleakness to the world after everyone partied too hard for too long and Maria was the perfect person to portray that through. This book was simply an ugly, beautiful disaster. And Didion put it all down on paper for us to be depressed about for years to come.