Book Review: Play It As It Lays

Play It As It Lays Book CoverPlay It As It Lays (1970) by Joan Didion took me by surprise. From the very first chapter Play It As It Lays is a brutal and merciless criticism of Hollywood and American culture in the 1960s. It’s main theme is nihilism, which is reflected not only in the personal struggle of our lead character but the environmental factors, including, sexism, class, gender stereotyping, money and power, and sexual desire that can often lead one to stray from their goals, go down the wrong path or deny their own self-worth and identity. For our lead character Maria it is a combination of all three.

This novel instantly reminded me of The Awakening by Kate Chopin; one of my all-time favorite books. Similar to Chopin’s lead character Edna Pontellier, Maria Wyeth is an unfilled woman of the upper Hollywood class who has lost her sense of identity and control over her life. Eventually life becomes pointless and the only way to survive is to “play the game” and pretend otherwise.

Play It As It Lays opens with a poignant internal monologue by Maria about her past. It’s quickly revealed that she is being confined by the state in an exclusive psychiatric institute to recover from a mental breakdown following her friend BZ’s suicide and her assumed assistance. What drove Maria to help BZ isn’t revealed for much of the book; but once you learn about Maria’s life it is not difficult to see why she wanted to help a friend conduct the ultimate escape – and why she chose not to join him.

Maria grew up in Silver Wells, Nevada; a small, dessert town where she was raised by a careless, gambling father and irrational, hapless mother. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life but she knew she didn’t want to stay in Silver Wells. She leaves for New York to become an actress but struggles and becomes the victim of Ivan Costello who uses her for her body and money.

Fast forward a few years later and Maria now lives in Beverly Hills. She is married to film maker Carter Lang, whose own success is based on the two films he made with Maria as lead actress. They have a daughter, Kate, who is in a mental institution for treatment for some “abherrant chemical” in her brain. Though their visits are brief and often emotionally fraught, it is obvious that Maria loves Kate based on how she talks about her and her desire to free her from her institutional prison. During this time Lang’s fame grows. He works more and is often away on location, leaving Maria alone and loveless. Jealous of her husband’s fame and upset that her agent is unable to secure her work, she parties too hard and drinks too much; eventually ending up in the arms of family friend Les Goodwin. When she accidentally becomes pregnant, she tells Lang, who coerces her into a discreet abortion for a child she desperately wants to keep.

Thus begins Maria’s unraveling.

Mentally shattered and fragile, Maria begins having nightmares of dying children and she quickly retreats within herself, refusing the help and sympathy of friends. Drugs, alcohol, and one-night stands with second-rate actors and former lovers are the means for her escape. When she finds out that Lang is having an affair with their friend BZ’s wife, Maria’s free-fall ends with BZ’s suicide and Maria’s culpability. The novel concludes with Maria a shell of her former self; planning a future life with her daughter Kate once they are both free of their confinements.

Play It As It Lays shows the darker side of the Hollywood lifestyle. Both Maria and BZ are victims of their circumstances and the betrayals by their partners. And while BZ decides he can no longer “play the game” and makes his escape, Maria is unable to join him because of the love she has for her daughter.