Play It As It Lays Summary

Joan Didion

Play It As It Lays

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Play It As It Lays Summary

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Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion is a novel that was published in 1970. It begins with Maria Wyeth, who grew up in the desert near Las Vegas. Maria’s parents love to gamble. Though Maria didn’t know what she would do when she grew up, she knew she wanted to leave the desert behind. So, when she ends up in Beverly Hills, married to Carter, a filmmaker, she feels like she’s well on her way to realizing her childhood goal. Maria even gets a lead role in Carter’s first two films.

Carter and Maria have a daughter, whom they name Kate. Kate lives in a mental institution, and on the rare occasion that Maria and Carter are able to visit with her, their time together is both emotional and dramatic. Maria’s father had always told her life was a gamble, and she’s learning this first hand. Her and Carter’s lives are filled with fame and fortune. From there, parties, drugs, and alcohol find a foothold in the couple’s lifestyle. Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol become a bone of contention between Maria and Carter.

The first two films that Carter made—the ones Maria starred in—were successful. They were so successful that Carter’s work is the talk of Tinseltown, and everyone wants to work with him. While Maria is proud of his success, she’s also jealous of it. This jealousy is combined with abandonment issues, as Carter’s work directing films often requires him to go on location, which means the two are apart for long periods of time.

While Carter is away, Maria tries to fill the void. She used to receive attention as an actress, but now, in order to get attention, she has to become a party girl. She starts to drink to excess and begins an affair with a friend of the family, Les Goodwin. Maria decides she needs to act again, so she reaches out to her agent. But when her agent is able to find her a role, Maria changes her mind, deciding not to pursue it. Ultimately, Maria ends up taking the role because she decides that work—even if it’s not the role she imagined for herself—is better than going to parties, getting drunk, and sleeping the morning away.

Carter is still away when Maria realizes that she’s pregnant with Les Goodwin’s baby. She’s in denial though—she knows her body is changing to accommodate the growing fetus, but she refuses to acknowledge that she’s pregnant, and tries endlessly to convince herself it’s all in her imagination. Carter returns for a few days and Maria manages to not only accept the pregnancy but confess to Carter that she’s carrying their friend’s baby. Carter responds by providing her with the contact information of a doctor who can not only perform a safe abortion but keep it to himself.

However, Maria doesn’t want to abort the pregnancy. She tries a few times to get out of getting the abortion, and dreams about life with her baby. Carter is insistent though, and persistent, and Maria ends up at a house in Encino where she gets the abortion. After the abortion, and with her not being able to see Kate for long swaths of time, Maria has difficulty adjusting. In addition, she can’t get work as an actress and Carter keeps leaving to go on location for more work. Maria becomes depressed. She and Carter ultimately get a divorce. She only learns what Carter’s doing with work and who he’s dating through third-party sources.

Maria despairs her loneliness, and falls into a deeper depression, relying on drugs and alcohol to feel better. She refuses to leave home. Friends try to help her by trying to get her out of the house so she can work on getting her life back together, but she pushes them away. The loss of her baby, her work, and her husband result in Maria’s loss of identity. She ends up floating between Los Angeles and Las Vegas but doesn’t really feel like she’s living. At the end of the story, she follows Carter into the desert and discovers that he’s having an affair with a friend’s wife. Maria ends up hospitalized and hopes that she will see Kate again.

Play It As It Lays was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005. In 1972, the novel was adapted for film; Didion and her husband co-wrote the screenplay. Joan Didion is known for her work in fiction and nonfiction, as well as screenplays and a memoir titled The Year of Magical Thinking. In 2002, Didion received the St. Louis Literary Award. In 2005, The Year of Magical Thinking was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Didion received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2007; in the same year, she was awarded the Evelyn F. Burkey Award. Didion received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Harvard University in 2009, and another from Yale University in 2011. In 2013, she received the National Medal of Arts.