Play It as It Lays

Joan Didion

There’s something soap-operatic about this terse novel detailing a vaguely successful Hollywood actress’s nervous breakdown. Avoiding histrionics, the story details all the gossipy founders of Maria Wyeth with glances to her similarly challenged friends. Despite the concise nature of Didion’s prose, she manages to paint nuanced settings, from the freeways Maria drives all day for a while just to fill her time to later when she joins a film crew in the desert.

By day the thermometer outside the motel office would register between 120º and 130º. The old people put aluminum foil on their trailer windows to reflect the heat. There were two trees in the town, two cottonwoods in the dry river bed, but one of them was dead.

The book reads almost perfectly like a screenplay, and of course Didion made a movie version of the story.