As part of Gerber’s weekly book club – a “quarantine passion project” – the pair intelligently discusses the struggles Didion encountered in 1960s Los Angeles and how this dissection of American life draws parallels to the female existence today.
“This is a book that was written in 1970 and I almost wish it was less relevant because that would mean that we’d made actual progress,” says 28-year-old Ratajkowski. “But I’m grateful that there is a text like this.”
For the uninitiated, Play It As It Lays follows a young, struggling actor named Maria who is recovering from a mental breakdown in a psychiatric hospital in LA. The book flashes back to her life before her stint in the ward and it’s both a mix of glamour and grimness. Of dizzying highs and rock bottom. There’s a marriage breakdown, her career loss, parental deaths, drugs and an abortion.
“[Didion] talks about abortion,” says Gerber. “No one was even talking about it when Joan wrote this book and…it was a big deal. [Maria] feeling like she didn’t have a choice was something that was super triggering for me.”
“What was really striking to me was the inconvenience of her emotions and her pain,” replies Ratajkowski. “And how much all the men and women around her are like, ‘We don’t have time for you.’”
“A woman who is really beautiful and capable has been really oppressed – she’s actually lost touch of her own emotions. Because they are so inconvenient and no one at any point is respectful or compassionate. There’s nowhere to go to. She’s so alone all the time,” she continues.
“With her misery, she’s just floating through life, it’s so hard to read.”
Ratajkowski – who admits to reading the book in college – says it hit her differently reading it a decade later. “I think I wasn’t ready for the book [back then]. I’m really glad that I re-read it,” she says. “I guess I [initially] was like, ‘Why is she so sad? She feels so sorry for herself. Who are these people?’ At that point in my life, maybe I wasn’t capable of being compassionate with her. Now, reading it at 28, it was almost triggering.”
“It landed differently.”
The duo also touch on Maria’s loss of identity – and some of us could relate to this feeling during the current pandemic. That is, when the rug is pulled out from underneath us, who are we really and what are we left with?
“When the book starts, Maria’s her father’s daughter (and she talks about her dad and how he shaped who she became),” begins Gerber. “Then she was her husband’s wife (and Carter really objectified her because he made this movie about her which she openly expresses she was uncomfortable with). He made the movie to further his career and then leaves her for dust.”
“Her third role is that she’s the sex object to the public,” continues Gerber. “Once she feels stripped of these roles, she starts to question, ‘Who am I? What am I left with?’ All of her roles were defined by men in her life.”
“I love that so much, it’s so beautifully put,” replies Ratajkowski. “She’s been defined since birth by how men have seen her.”
On this note – and prior to bringing Ratajkowski into the Instagram Live, Gerber quotes her favorite line in the book: “She could remember it all but none of it seemed to come to anything. She had a sense that dream had ended and she’d slept on.”
“A lot of women begin to feel this way, especially if you’re in the public eye,” Gerber says now as herself. “You’re celebrated, everyone’s looking at you. Suddenly – whether it’s age or you become a mother or you don’t want to be in the public eye anymore – you are held to these standards and when the world relies on your beauty so much, it diminishes you to just that. And then you start to lose sight of who you are and your identity.”
There is something incredibly interesting about listening to Gerber and Ratajkowski – both women in the public eye – discuss Maria’s loneliness and lack of self-worth and identity. Like anything, when it’s all over, what’s left?
Introducing Ratajkowski, Gerber, 18, says: “Her beauty is the least incredible part of her which says so much about her as a person. She’s smart, she’s advocated for women’s rights, she’s very outspoken about sexual misconduct and such an inspiration to so many young girls that being sexy does not mean you are not smart, that you are not important and that you are not strong. She helped me a lot with that it doesn’t diminish you.” It’s such a sweet introduction and Ratajkowksi is visibly blushing as she’s added into the chat.
I did a little bit of research into some of the comment sections of good book sights and I found this beautiful summary on goodreads.com from a reader named Julie Christine: “Joan Didion once said that writing is a hostile act. An imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space. Play It As It Lays, published in 1970, slaps down at your soul’s kitchen table and announces itself, not loudly, but in a voice that crawls under your skin, not really caring whether or not you want to see anyone, and lights a cigarette.”
just like kaia gerber and emily ratajkowski, You can pick up a paperback copy of Play It As It Lays or the digital version at Amazon.
Once you’ve read it, re-watch the below with a glass of wine – or maybe even a cigarette at the kitchen table.
Watch Kaia Gerber and Emily Ratajkowski discuss the book below.