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Didion’s novel , Play It As It Lays, begins in a unique manner.  The protagonist, Maria Wyeth, gives a first person account of her past struggles, and discusses  memories that stand out in her mind to explain her current state of affairs. The next two chapters consist of Maria’s husband, Carter, giving his best shot at reflecting upon where their relationship went wrong, followed by an explanation from Maria’s “friend,” Helene, who has come to visit her at the recovery center. The visit is despite the fact that Helene blatantly blames Maria’s selfishness for the series of incidences that have occurred in all of their lives.  After this brief introduction, the novel turns back time to trace the steps which lead to Maria’s stay at an expensive California rehabilitation center.

In the second part of the novel, the perspective changes from first to third person, thus making Maria’s story more enigmatic and debatable.  The reader has received a straightforward answer from Maria in regards to her troubles, “I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point.”  Yet,  the much of the novel is focused on solving the puzzle about when and where it all began.

The timeline of the story shifts from past to present, allowing the reader an introspective way of analyzing Maria’s psyche and her life, which is unavoidable because of the way the tale unfolds. From the beginning, the reader is informed that Maria has always had personal and emotional distractions looming in the back of her mind.  As a young girl, she grew up in an abandoned town in the middle of the desert that her gambling father won on a bet.  In order to escape from something, perhaps it is herself even then, Maria decides to move to New York City.  Shortly after leaving her family behind, her mother is killed in a car accident, which leaves a hole in Maria’s heart she never seems to fill. She feels it was her responsibility to be there, and she wasn’t.  When she meets her future husband, Carter, in NYC , she turns to him for guidance and support. He does this well by promoting her acting career, and providing her with the things he thinks she wants. Maybe she thought she wanted those things at the time.

While her decision to marry Carter, and have a baby seem like a good idea, it becomes obvious that she cannot find herself through him. Rather, Maria becomes defined by Carter and the privileges she is given, not due to her talents, but to her connections through her husband.  In addition, a relationship that might have been redeemable is destroyed when Carter sends their daughter Kate away due to an illness which is undisclosed to the reader. The final straw between them occurs when Maria becomes pregnant again; she knows Carter will not accept the baby, and decides to abort it.

The dynamics of the relationship between Maria and Carter are illustrated in their dialogues.  The reader is able to sense Carter’s hostility and insults flying off the pages of the novel. He is frustrated by her problems and inconsistencies, which only manifests to create a worse situation for Maria. She begins a down-ward spiral after the abortion has taken place, illegally, and without anesthetic in a private home where the floor is covered in newspapers to absorb both her blood and her loss.

Maria turns to a variety of drugs such as barbiturates , marijuana, and alcohol in order to self-medicate.  She also moves out of her Beverly Hills mansion to live in a small apartment.  As usual, Carter’s response to her acting out is to ignore the root of her problems and criticize her coping methods.  Part of Maria’s problem is that the circle of people she and Carter surround themselves with in Hollywood is toxic to her.  “They are not her friends,” she admits. Even when her acquaintances, BZ, Helene, and Les Goodwin, the man Maria’s sleeping with, come around to help, she only feels more alone.

Maria has considered suicide, and has even gone as far as to write three last letters; she planned to die.  Carter is well aware of the seriousness of her situation, but instead of trying to talk her down from the ledge, he encourages her to follow through and end it on more than one occasion. He says, “Well go to sleep, cunt.  Go to sleep. Die fucking vegetable.”  This is inexcusably harsh, but a perceptive reader can deduce that he is a man who once loved Maria, and he cannot stand to see her life in shambles. By giving up on her, he also admits defeat, thus he lashes out.

There comes a time in the text when a reader asks much the same question as Carter poses to Maria: if she is infinitely miserable with no way out, why doesn’t she just end her own suffering? The more Maria’s past and present are revealed, the reader begins to see what Carter and Helene see in Maria, selfishness. In her defense,  she is a young woman who has never been content, and her life has been filled with disappointments. The best she can do is enter a facility and attempt to improve her circumstances. This is how the text comes full-circle, bringing the reader back to the first scene, where Maria waits in recovery.

It is truly saddening, yet realistic, to read a story about a young woman as tormented as Maria. There are many things to take out of this novel, but the thought that Maria has always suffered, and is perhaps doomed to do so, is a thought to be considered.  Of course another reader might argue that the final result came from years of mistakes and confusion.  Part of the brilliance of this text is that, similar to Maria’s peers, the reader can never really be certain what exactly Maria’s main problems are. She reflects on her own life, commenting “I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes sense, none of it adds up.”  I would like to think that Didion purposely finished this novel with unanswered questions to allow people to ruminate.  She knew that each person would come to their own conclusions and take away what made them feel better about the plight of Maria.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For more information:

Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion on the Writing Process -Interview with The Paris Review

The Years of Writing Magically – Interview with the Guardian

Film (1972)