Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review of the Day: Play It As It Lays

Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays is brilliant and heartbreaking. It packs more raw tragedy into its 214 pages than entire bookshelves can hold.

Maria Wyeth was a promising actress who starred in two feature films (one distributed) directed by her husband. But now Maria’s career has fizzled, her marriage is on the rocks, and her four-year-old daughter is institutionalized because she has “an aberrant chemical in her brain.”

Maria is heading for a big crack up. But before she gets there, she has to face an abortion, various adulteries, some rough sex, prescription drug issues, and jaded Hollywood ennui.

Didion’s novel is bleak, spare, and cold. The characters – even Maria – are not given to introspection. The scenes in the book feel like movie shots, with the emotion coming from what is seen and heard, not what is going on inside anyone’s head.

The abortion theme is particularly brutal – this book does for abortion rights what Looking for Mr. Goodbar does for sexual independence – but the whole book is difficult. It will leave a stain on the psyche.

This book appears on the All-TIME Top 100 list and Erica Jong's list of Top 100 books by women.

(If you would like your review listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)


  1. I really liked Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, but I've always shied away from her fiction, maybe for the same reason I've never read Margaret Atwood, too bleak...but if they're that good, maybe I should give them a try.

  2. Jane -- It was bleak, but so very, very good. I am still recovering. I dream that I told my husband the entire plot, and in my dream, I did.

    I have Magical Thinking on my TBR shelf and now I want to read it more than ever.

  3. I started reading Magical Thinking last spring, but I was going through my own raw emotions and mourning, and it was too much and I shelved it. I need to pick it up again. I wondered how a book about mourning could possibly be so compelling. But it is. Didion's amazing talent for articulating deep, thoughtful insights propels the book from the very beginning. I'm going to go find it now.

  4. Miss Laura -- That is sad. I have put off reading Magical Thinking because I don't like to think at all (magically or otherwise) about my husband dying. But if I could survive Play It As It Lays, I can read it.


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