Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Published by Simon & Schuster, 1970
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
This relative fever dream of a novel opens with our protagonist, former actress and model Maria, institutionalised following a breakdown. We are then taken through a series of visceral snapshots from throughout her life, exploring the misogynistic and toxic nature of life in Hollywood, and the impact of her own self-destructive behaviour. Much of this is driven by mental illness, life’s many knocks, the betrayals of men, and the yearning she feels to be with her hospitalised daughter, who is suffering from an unspecified illness of the brain.
The book is kaleidoscopic and alienating, but in a way that serves its central themes and characterisation. Scant on plot in the traditional sense and jumping erratically back and forth through time, Maria’s story is presented in a way that feels suitably fragmented, chaotic, and lacking in direction. Many have also argued that her story is relentlessly bleak. While this is mostly true, I do think there’s a faint yet important glimmer of hope to be found in her eventual acceptance of help, rejection of old acquaintances, and determination to reunite with her daughter. Sometimes to simply carry on living in the face of misery is in itself a victory, and Didion explores this idea to poignant effect.
I also have huge admiration for how bold and unashamed the book is in its tackling of subjects which continue to be taboo now, let alone when Didion was writing about them.
The prose itself is sharp and deceptively powerful; Didion’s eye for human observation providing keen insight into her anti-heroine’s psyche. I do, however, think it’s worth flagging up the unchallenged use of some outdated terms that would now be considered slurs. A product of the book’s time, their use never feels malicious, but it’s inevitable that many modern readers will find them jarring. Still, this was never enough to detract from the impact of this perceptive, brutally honest portrayal of a woman in crisis. It’s an attack on the vapid systems that exist to build women up, only to tear them back down; a notion that sadly still resonates more than 50 years after the book’s initial release.