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Play It as It Lays

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  30,572 ratings  ·  2,334 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 214 pages
Published 2017 by Harper Collins Publishers (first published 1970)
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Feb 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017
"I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what when out on the last. I no longer believe that."
- Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

description (

Warning: This book is not to be read if suicidal, heavily medicated, driving, pregnant, or if you ever dream of walking out, alone, into the Nevada desert and not coming back. This book is pure existential peril. I remember when I was four being specifically afraid of our church's bathroom. I remember thinking the church w
Jeffrey Keeten
“There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”

 photo Joan20Didion_zpsxckspaho.jpg
Joan Didion

Whenever Maria called, it was as if the ringing of the phone heralded the end of any conviviality I might have been harboring. I always had the impression when I talked with her that the Fun to Be Around Maria was dying in another room, and all I was left with was the beautiful corpse.

She wa
All right, let's discuss...

It has been a month since I read this little ditty, and in that one month's time, it has managed to lose a star. Because honestly, I can't give a book 5 stars just because I couldn't put it down, just because it was a "quick read." If that was the standard, every Jodi Picoult book I've ever read would be given 5 stars.

When it comes down to it, while I did thoroughly enjoy this book, it isn't one that's going to stay with me through the ages. It isn't one I'm going to
Julie Christine
Jun 01, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classic, read-2015
Joan Didion once said that writing is a hostile act. An imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.

Play It As It Lays, published in 1970, slaps down at your soul's kitchen table and announces itself, not loudly, but in a voice that crawls under your skin, not really caring whether or not you want to see anyone, and lights a cigarette. In between noxious exhales, it tells you some version of the truth.

Maria Wyeth's story, told in shifting first and close third pers
Steven Godin
Don't quite know how she did it, but it's rare I come across a novel that I found so alienating and distant, yet so warm at the same time. Didion's Play it as it lays which takes place across Los Angeles, the Mojave Desert and Las Vegas is full of excess truths that dart across it's pages more like a prophecy. And it seemed to me to do that thing that feels impossible: it connects to readers who are not of the ilk of the characters.

Didion opens proceedings in not the greatest of places one woul
Joe Valdez
Mar 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction-general
Anyone still wondering why Dave Chappelle would walk out on a $50 million TV deal with Comedy Central to go into semi-retirement hasn't read Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. All the answers are here.

There is such a thing as a novel missing me at whatever point I'm at in my life. But there's also the kismet of a novel careening into me at the moment I'm crossing the same intersection the author is driving through. A month ago, I was reading an oral history of the '80s movie Masters of the Unive
Lynne King
So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body).

Which author could possibly begin a novel with the words:

What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.

Well surprisingly enough Joan Didion. And these words set in motion the inevitable direction that t
Gambling, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, insanity, depression, snakes, suicide. These are all elements of Play It As It Lays, and much, much more. This is stark, wide-eyed, slap in the face prose that grabs the reader and holds you from beginning to end. It's not a pleasant read, no way. Watching Maria Wyeth's life unfold is like watching the proverbial train wreck that you can't look away from. Set in the 1960's, it's about Hollywood and the movie industry; it's ...more
Sep 28, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recently my five y/o daughter caught the first minute of the "Thriller" video. I say the first minute because upon seeing Michael look up at the camera with yellow eyes and fangs she threw her hands up, screamed at the top of her lungs, ran from the room, into her room, ran back into the room (still screaming), out of the room, back in and buried her head into the safety of my comforting lap (still screaming).

Now I realize this is most people's reaction to seeing Micheal's post '90s decomposing
Dan Williamson
Apr 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: california
"Just so. I am what I am. To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point."

This is a cruel book populated by cruel characters whose hearts, for the most part, stay cold and brutish even in the desert's blistering heat. I have enjoyed Didion’s essays, so I was expecting some of the themes, but I had not prepared myself for something so delirious and fragmented. I should admit that I was not always sure I knew what was going on. It is nasty and brutish, and I loved it.

The story plays out in the form of
Apr 22, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I finished reading this book the other day, I suddenly realized that I hadn't really appreciated it correctly. That I needed to reread it right away because I hadn't read it the right way and because there is a lot that you don't have enough information to make sense of the first time around.

I don't understand how people can call this book cold and sterile. I just thought it was so rich and textured and heartbreaking. I feel like the little chapters are like puzzle pieces and each piece is
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Joan Didion wastes no words. This novel is slim because she only says what must be said, and the reader must make the connections and draw the conclusions. It starts at the end with a few chapters from the points of view of other characters, then shifts into the story from Maria Wyeth's point of view. It is a picture of a depressed woman in a fake society, late 1960s Los Angeles and Las Vegas. An era with drugs and sex, movie stars in the desert and psychiatric hospitals for children, but no acc ...more
Well, now I know where Brett Easton Ellis got the inspiration for "Less Than Zero". Except Joan Didion is a much, much better writer than him. ...more
Mar 11, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: film industry wives? or people obsessed with LA
I remember when I read Where I Was From a couple years ago, Didion referred a lot to her novel Play It As It Lays and I thought it sounded really bad. About a year ago I found an old edition someplace with this enormous and brain-numbingly awesome picture of Didion with her cigarette and legendarily icy, ironical stare. I really came close to buying it just because of that image on the back, but then I had a real stern confrontation with myself in the used fiction aisle about the folly and immat ...more
K.D. Absolutely
Mar 03, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: 1
Recommended to K.D. by: Time 100; 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006-2012)
A beautiful book that you can finish in one sitting. However, don't read this when you are depressed because it can make you more depressed. In fact, it made me stop reading for a while because I felt so sad because I could not shake off from my mind the disheartening scenes in the book. This book that is included in the Time Magazine's 100 Best English Novels from 1923 to 2005.

The book is about a 30-year old mother, Maria Wyeth who lives in the 60's America as a struggling actress. She meets a
Oct 12, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first of her fiction that I’ve read, and it has the bleakly stylish pleasures I might have predicted from prior exposure to the essays – her feel for ominous banality, for the casual nihilism of the rootless (she insinuates where Isherwood rants, and beats him on the Zen of Freeways), for the grotesque contrast of a character’s obvious ongoing crack-up and the evasive, anesthetized trivialities she speaks in. Published in 1970 but feels radically spare and minimal – but I don’t know why I sa ...more
April Hayes
May 19, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You ever notice how almost every review you’ll read of a Joan Didion book calls her “intelligent,” or says that she writes “intelligent prose”? That must get to you. No wonder all of her heroines take pills.

It’s true, though, she does have an awful big brain for such a little lady. And yeah, L.A. is scary, and there isn’t really anyone who conveys that better than her…except maybe Philip K. Dick, who isn’t literally writing about L.A., but come on.

But, I don’t know, as good as the technique is h
Nov 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
Writing is a hostile act, says Joan Didion, not in this book, just generally, that's a thing she says. She clarifies in this terrific interview:
It's hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way.

So here she is wrenching around your mind in a basically hostile bummer of a book. Her lead, Maria, lives more or less permanently at rock bottom - high, promisc
Claire Reads Books
2.5 ⭐️ This was my first time reading Joan Didion’s fiction, and in many ways this novel exemplifies those aspects of her writing that I have always found least compelling and, at times, even grating: the extent to which Didion is Hollywood adjacent, the ultimate New York and California insider; her predilection for name-dropping and gossip and inner circles; her inescapable elitism. The writing here is as precise as ever, but the story is all style and very little substance, following one woman ...more
Sep 25, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: fashionistas and chloe sevigny
Lifes tough when you're a pill popping actress trying to cope with an abortion. Quick and entertaining enough to pass time on subway rides. I had trouble relating or empathizing with the characters in the book, though i had a hunch i'm not supposed to. Maybe its LA that i dont like? It had a Hurly Burly type feel to it, except its not funny. This book probably would have been more effective if i read it when i was 15, when wallowing in depression seemed glamourous. Honestly i had a hard time abs ...more
Isaac Cooper
I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?

2.5/5 Stars

I felt incredibly dicked around while reading Play It as It Lays. I read all of it – a good sign for me – but I still felt dicked. I was getting rather restless at times, and I was also reminded of Hemingway (whom I loathe, and whom I believe Ms Didion aspires to be). I just wanted something more to happen! I wanted to feel something more for Maria (ma-ri-a?). Granted, I did feel something, but not enough. Quality review,
Jason Coleman
Aug 03, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Kind of fascinating to see that concise, tip-of-the-iceberg prose of Didion's essays applied to a piece of fiction. The heroine, who seems to share the author's withering intelligence, can't enjoy the decadence that her friends have resigned themselves to, but she isn't much good with the wholesome life either, so she carves out a mostly solitary existence made up of sleeping next to her swimming pool, compulsively hitting the highway (she puts less thought into zipping over to Vegas [distance: ...more
Wildly disenchanted 1960s Hollywood.

This is a story about Maria, and to tell more is to ruin the swirl of consciousness. It is stark, the tarnished and penumbral side of glamour. How hard won "glamour" is. The winners, the losers, the rising and the falling; they all portray the tenuous hold each has. So close to the edge.

Honestly, I don't recommend this story to anyone that isn't in a good headspace because it's brutal in a nihilistic manner. That said, it is a fantastic voice, telling of a wom
Full of memorable lines and utterly engrossing, Play it as It Lays is a new favorite. I read it pretty quickly but it took a lot out of me to do so. Must find more Didion...
Feb 09, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This novel starts out with its protagonist, Maria Wyeth, asking an interesting question. She says, "What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask." A person who knows who they are never asks such a question. But I don't fully believe that our protagonist is such a person. In fact she, along with the rest of the book's cast of characters, doesn't even seem fully dimensional to me.
Stylistically the text is interesting. The chapters are very short, and we are told the story in a nonlinear fash
Elaine Mullane || At Home in Books
Joan Didion is a brilliant and fascinating writer. Her writing is razor sharp and dissects American culture in a way that is both blistering and brutally refreshing. Her journalism is of great importance, with her being responsible for the earliest mainstream media article suggesting The Central Park Five had been wrongly convicted and her reportage that brought Californian subcultures to the forefront in the 1960s.

Play It As It Lays is set in 1960's California and opens with the story of Maria
Dec 02, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hmm. Star ratings are tricky here. I'm giving it a 3 for my own enjoyment of it, but it probably deserves a four for being so well written.

Although I didn't exactly relish this book, I did read it in one sitting. I love Joan Didion's essays, so I was excited to try a novel. But this is not really my kind of book. If you like Bret Easton Ellis novels, you'll probably love this. If you like reading about rich people wandering aimlessly through their lives and shuddering through the death throes of
Feb 15, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Oof. The Sheltering Sky meets The Great Gatsby as rewritten by Raymond Carver? Only... even more depressing and bleak than that sounds? Hence the "oof," you know.

Normally I just want books about poor, poor rich people to spare me, but this one worked by never losing sight of the fact that these hedonists were constantly digging their own holes.


Lots of people try to get that anemic, quietly desperate, call of the void, decadent Hollywood thing, but it's not as easy to pull off as it sounds.

This book is the evil fairy grandmother of that whole genre.
aPriL does feral sometimes
Play it as it Lays' by Joan Didion is a brilliant literary novel. Didion is a superb writer. However, her main character in this novel, a minor Hollywood celebrity, is a waster to me. I despised her. The sixties was not a good time to be an actress. Sexual predation was common no matter how talented a performer was. But I don't think that is what this book is about.

I have seen many reviews on this novel. Some are very sympathetic, unlike me, to the main character, thirty-one-year-old Maria Wyeth
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Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She's best known for her novels and her literary journalism.

Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.

Articles featuring this book

We asked Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, and journalist-turned-crime novelist Laura...
100 likes · 49 comments
“What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.” 85 likes
“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing.” 59 likes
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