Julie Christine's Reviews > Play It As It Lays

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
1213607
's review

really liked it
bookshelves: 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 person, is a 20th century existential tragedy, a sort of American The Stranger, in which Maria is Meursault and Los Angeles, Algiers; a psychiatric hospital stands in for a prison; there is a Nevada desert instead of a North African beach.

At thirty-one, Maria is an actress of fading relevance with an impending divorce and a beloved four-year-old daughter in a care facility for the developmentally disabled (oh, my heart stuttered at the term 'retarded' used throughout the book). No one at the institution combs Kate's hair and the sad tangles Maria tries to smooth out during her visits are somehow emblematic of the chaos in her own life.

The chaos isn't a busy one. It isn't an overflow of demands. It is the chaos of nothingness. “By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.” Maria has become paralyzed by life, by the emptiness of her career and her relationships, where friends exchange each other as lovers as often as they exchange yesterday's soiled underwear for today's clean pair. She has had her insides scraped clean of a child conceived not in love, but in desperate boredom, and that act—the back alley abortion so terribly, graphically evoked here, remember, this is the late 1960s—is the ultimate creation of empty chaos.

Maria finds solace traveling the freeways that criss-cross this City of Angels. Cruising the nothingness of the tarmac is the only time she feels safe and in control.

Yes, this is a wrenching read. But so brilliant. The multiple points-of-view are deftly handled, the lightest touch bringing in this character or that. Didion's writing, with its echoes of Hemingway and McCullers, is spare and unflinching. The chapters are short and white space is left on the page, reflecting the white space in Maria's life that she tries to fill with alcohol, sex, acting, driving.

Few novels have taken me so deeply inside one character, injecting me into her bloodstream, so that I breathe with her, see through her eyes. I love Maria, I hate her, I want to protect her, I want her out of my life.

Time has done nothing to diminish the power of Maria's story, yet Play It As It Lays is a fascinating time capsule of feminist literature. Highly recommended.
76 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Play It As It Lays.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

June 1, 2015 – Started Reading
June 1, 2015 – Shelved
June 2, 2015 – Shelved as: classic
June 2, 2015 – Shelved as: read-2015
June 2, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Joe (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joe Valdez Dazzling review, Julie. I've met more people adrift in "the chaos of nothingness" than I would like. Some made it out and found something to look forward to, others did not. I've planned on reading this late in the year, but since my reading docket has been thrown into chaos, I may reorder and put this novel near the top.


Julie Christine Joe wrote: "Dazzling review, Julie. I've met more people adrift in "the chaos of nothingness" than I would like. Some made it out and found something to look forward to, others did not. I've planned on reading..." It hurts to recognize someone we know, perhaps love or loved, in a character like Maria. Perhaps even recognize a bit of our past or present selves.

Joe, thank you for your wonderful words! It's a quick read. I so look forward to your thoughts!


Debbie Fantastic review, Julie! I read this a gazillion years ago, and your review left me both nostalgic and yearning to re-read it. Thank you!


message 4: by Margitte (new)

Margitte Not my kind of book right now, but your review was captivating.


message 5: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Reese Damn!


Julie Christine Debbie wrote: "Fantastic review, Julie! I read this a gazillion years ago, and your review left me both nostalgic and yearning to re-read it. Thank you!" Thank you, Debbie! This is the first Joan Didion I've read. I have some catching up to do. :)


Julie Christine Margitte wrote: "Not my kind of book right now, but your review was captivating." Margitte, thank you. It wasn't an easy one to read, for sure.


Julie Christine Leslie wrote: "Damn!" Word!


Debbie Julie, I really loved her two more recent memoirs on grieving: The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. She has gone through some tough stuff. Her language is magnificent and you can just feel her pain. I also liked her Kindle short ($2.50) called Joan: Forty Years of Life, Loss and Friendship with Joan didion. I just looked her up and had no idea she was so prolific. I'll have to check out some of her other fiction as well!


Julie Christine Debbie wrote: "Julie, I really loved her two more recent memoirs on grieving: The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. She has gone through some tough stuff. Her language is magni..." I was "introduced" to Joan Didion in the early 80s, after my parents divorced and my mother embraced feminism. I recall a much dog-eared copy of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" in the house and trying to read a few essays. Obviously, not meant for a 12-year-old. :) She's always been on my list, but I don't know that I was ready for Didion until now.


Debbie Ha! I forgot about Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Takes me down memory lane! I can still see its orange cover on the shelf in my 200-square-foot apartment in Cambridge in my 20s. I'm a damn antique!


message 12: by Carol (new)

Carol Your reviews are brilliant, Julie and a pleasure to read.


Julie Christine Carol wrote: "Your reviews are brilliant, Julie and a pleasure to read."

Just seeing this- Carol, thank you!


Julie Christine Bridgette wrote: "Great review. Thank you. And thank for your not starting your review with some nonsensical digression like so many others I've found on here!"
Thank you, Bridgette!


message 15: by Sylvia (new) - added it

Sylvia Excellent review!!


Julie Christine Sylvia wrote: "Excellent review!!"

Thank you, Sylvia!


back to top