Play It As It Lays: A Novel (FSG Classics) (Paperback)

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By Joan Didion, David Thomson (Introduction by)
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Staff Reviews

Most people meet Joan Didion in an autobiographical or journalistic essay form. I fell in love with her because of Play It As It Lays. I must have been 24 the first time I read it, an age when I searched for any language to give meaning to my disillusioned, lonely, panic-ridden mind. Miraculously, I stumbled upon this book and felt a sense of mental clarity that I continue to find and cultivate through literature. 

The novel begins with Maria in a psychiatric institution. Despite her nervous breakdown, she deliberately resists feeling dejected. Detached, maybe, but never dejected. She describes her life as a series of events and facts, one thing that led to another and another and then to the hospital by the sea, where she is training her mind to hold on. Then, the book flashes back to her life before the hospital. She has a few marriages, a short acting career, a sick daughter, and periods of glamour followed by periods of disintegration. There are parties, affairs, an abortion, and finally a suicide that sends her over the edge. It is heart-wrenching and raw, and it points to the cultural diseases of a specific era and the inevitable consequences for the people living with them.

Having read much of Didion’s early writing, this book felt noticeably more personal despite being fiction. The terse language and acute observations are in her distinctive voice, but there is a depth to this story that has the power to shift one’s worldview. In general, “unlikeable” women hold a precarious place in both literature and society, and this book certainly plays with nihilism, apathy, and moral grey areas in a way that generally leaves people squirming. It is a scathing look at Hollywood in the 1960s, a theme Didion knows well, but what resonated with me was Maria’s unsettling awareness of the lunacy of the world surrounding her, which leads to her attempts at finding agency in a world that didn’t allow for female agency. In all, it is a harrowing novel by a superb writer. It will make you feel grounded even amidst chaos.

— Carmen


A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Joan Didion's 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 arid soul---it remains more than three decades after its original publication a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crisis and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.

About the Author

Joan Didion is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, as well as several screenplays written with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. Her books include The White Album, Play It As It Lays, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She lives in New York City.

David Thomson, renowned as one of the great living authorities on the movies, is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth edition. His books include a biography of Nicole Kidman, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and “Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London in 1941, he now lives in San Francisco.

Praise For…

“There hasn't been another American writer of Joan Didion's quality since Nathanel West . . . A terrifying book.” —John Leonard, The New York Times

“Simple, restrained, intelligent, well-structured, witty, irresistibly relentless, forthright in diction, and untainted by the sensational, Play It As It Lays is a book of outstanding literary quality.” —Library Journal

“[A] scathing novel, distilling venom in tiny drops, revealing devastation in a sneer and fear in a handful of atomic dust.” —J. R. Frakes, Book World

Product Details
ISBN: 9780374529949
ISBN-10: 0374529949
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication Date: November 15th, 2005
Pages: 240
Language: English
Series: FSG Classics