REVIEW: PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, BY JOAN DIDION

Spare, elegant, and terrifying, Play It as It Lays is the unforgettable story of a woman and a society come undone.

Raised in the ghost town of Silver Wells, Nevada, Maria Wyeth is an ex-model and the star of two films directed by her estranged husband, Carter Lang. But in the spiritual desert of 1960s Los Angeles, Maria has lost the plot of her own life. Her daughter, Kate, was born with an “aberrant chemical in her brain.” Her long-troubled marriage has slipped beyond repair, and her disastrous love affairs and strained friendships provide little comfort. Her only escape is to get in her car and drive the freeway—in the fast lane with the radio turned up high—until it runs out “somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped.” But every ride to nowhere, every sleepless night numbed by pills and booze and sex, makes it harder for Maria to find the meaning in another day.

My Thoughts: Joining the journey of Maria Wyeth in Play It as It Lays felt like a descent. A slow unraveling of a woman who has found no meaning in her life, and who will end up with nothing left.

Mariah has finally come full circle and is under the care of psychiatrists, in a place where she can turn her life over to others.

In a non-linear narrative, we watch Mariah’s life in flashbacks. Anything she sees in the world around her can send her back to moments in another time or place. Some happy moments, and as she grasps for feelings of connection, she can hang on a little longer. Images of her daughter Kate feel the most poignant, and sometimes she seems to be grasping for time with her again, but she also realizes that these hopes are impossible.

Watching a young woman destroy herself slowly, and seeing those around her enable her, felt like an insidious train wreck. Self-destruction takes time, but when it finally happens, you almost feel relieved. A beautifully written story that literally depressed me. 4.5 stars.***

REVIEW: THE PASSENGER, BY LISA LUTZ

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Our story begins as Tanya Pitts Dubois contemplates the death of her husband Frank, as he lies at the bottom of the stairs. In her first person voice, we learn more about Frank than we care to know, and the humor underlying her narration, as well as my curiosity about her story, kept me reading.

Who is Tanya, and why is she running, taking on a series of identities, and moving from one place after another, always finding new ways to avoid whatever past events have propelled her onto this path?

Meeting a woman who calls herself Blue takes our protagonist on an entirely different trajectory, and her various incarnations become more interesting at this point. Will these two become cohorts on the journey? Or does Blue have a different agenda, one that will bring her onto Tanya/Amelia’s path again at some point?

As our narrator’s journey becomes more challenging, and as she encounters adversarial people and events, we also see a thread of narrative in the form of e-mails between “Ryan and Jo,” and come to conclude that these two represent moments from the past.

The Passenger was a story about mistakes, bad choices, wrongful accusations, and how one can never really correct those missteps. But sometimes one can overcome unthinkable obstacles with a little help. A shocking series of events draw the story to a close, with a final reveal that I did not see coming. 5 stars.

***My e-ARC was received from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: THE SECRET LIFE OF CEECEE WILKES, BY DIANE CHAMBERLAIN

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CeeCee Wilkes was a vulnerable, sixteen-year-old girl who had lived in foster homes after the death of her mother when she was twelve.

The letters she carried with her, the ones her mother had written to serve as a guide to her as she matured, would be her only touchstone. But nothing in her mother’s letters or the life she’d lived could have prepared her for the charming, manipulative Tim Gleason.

The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes begins with a prologue in the present, with a young woman named Corinne, who watches as the woman she knew as her mother confesses a horrendous secret in front of TV cameras.

We then flash back to 1977, and to an event that changed CeeCee’s life forever.

In alternating narratives told by Corinne, by CeeCee, and then Eve Elliott, the persona she took on while in hiding, we learn about the fear and vulnerability the young girl faced one terrible night in a remote cabin, and how she spent the next period of her life in hiding. And tried over the years to be the best mother she could be to the baby she “stole” in order to protect her.

What really happened in that remote cabin? What would finally bring the truth out? What price would CeeCee (Eve) have to pay for telling her story? And how would Corinne bury the bitterness and anger she feels in order to reach out to the woman she knew as her mother?

This was a story that spotlighted many issues of morality and choice, and which allows the reader to root for CeeCee despite her wrong choices. I could not stop reading or caring about the characters, flawed though they were. I loved this story and would recommend it for all who enjoy family stories and for those who are fans of Chamberlain. 5.0 stars.