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4.1 out of 5 stars17
4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 13 May 2004
My experience of this book is that it divides opinion; you either find it depressing/irritating, or for some inexplicable reason...uplifting rather than disturning and I'm in the latter category.

But there's no escaping the fact that this novel has an incredibly hollow centre- the exploration of Hollywood and the drug culture of the 1960's won't make many readers feel all fuzzy inside, but there is something brutally refreshing about the heroine Maria's experiences, as we follow her on her journey. As a central character she's very unusual, quite possibly because she's in a permamant catatonic state and as a result she wades through the monotony of her life, observing events with a detachment that makes for surprisingly absorbing reading.

The point of view is very narrow in this story, it's a flow-of-conciousness novel (i.e. quite confusing at times), which may in itself put people off and the fact that the narrator has had an emotional bypass may also discourage those considering picking up this book, but I found Maria's story convincing and interesting. *But be warned, you'll need a good supply of coca-cola to consume whilst reading.
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I first read this novel on a trip to Los Angeles many years ago, and picked it up to read again when I revisited that city last month. The city is almost a character in the book: ever-present in the background as the heroine tries to escape from her demons by continually driving its endless freeways: "She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura [...and she] lay at night in the still of Beverly hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie 1/4 Vermont 3/4 Harbor Fwy 1." (p16).

Its presence is made stronger by the emptiness of the heroine's life: an unfulfilled actress in the middle of a divorce (and probably a nervous breakdown as well), drifting in the emotional space between sad memories of her parents, longings for her hospitalized daughter, and several men whose characters are so vaguely drawn that you find it hard to remember which is which. You can also tell that it's not a happy story, but the author tells it with such spare, tight and vivid prose (strongly reminiscent of Hemingway) that you find yourself being drawn along for the ride on those endless highways.
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"...white space. Empty space." describes the novel that our heroine Maria tells us she would write if she could. Fast, ambiguous, empty. Well, Didion did it for her.

This book is blistering, corrupt, empty, wounded, decadent and lost. Apparently, you didn't have to drink grappa with Hemingway when you could become just as lost driving the abandoned highways of Southern California and the Mojave.

Everything in this book is dry, hot, arid and empty, including our heroine and every single adult character. Ennui and the brutality of nothingness bookend this despairing tale. Read it and it will never quite leave your mind.
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VINE VOICEon 5 June 2016
Often when one reads a book that addresses profound topics such as 'What's the point of it all?' one can end up auditioning for Pseuds Corner. This novel is undoubtedly idiosyncratic in style and content, yet steered well clear of such pretension.

It is a painful, melancholic and challenging read yet one I would want to re-visit (and there aren't too many books one can say that about). Packed with imagery yet a short-ish book with over 80 chapters that allows easy digestion.
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on 4 March 2015
Pretty easy to read. Captures the dissatisfaction this woman has with her life in a subtle way. By the end you really understand her pain and her broken relationship despite not knowing what caused it or if anything in particular caused it. That's perhaps the point. Just the constant dissatisfaction some people feel, self destructive and numb to life. Alive but not living. I'd say it's worth a read
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on 7 February 2016
Short overview of an actress' disturbing life. Tells the story of a self-destructive actress, whose life only exists in drinking, taking drugs and sleeping with many man, bringing her completely down
It gives you a good insight that although the surroundings ( California,Vegas,) are nice, life in the 60's was crazy
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on 15 December 2013
I found this to be a very mellowing story. It manages to communicate the flatness and isolation of a person suffering with depression, without being at all self pitying or depressing in itself, which is both and insightful. A good read, I enjoyed it.
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on 13 February 2014
A powerful novel from the wonderful Joan Didion scraping flesh from the bones of American life in the 1960s.
Frightening, incisive and haunting account of a woman without a home for her heart.
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on 5 November 2002
Probably one of the more depressing books I've read, this is one long tale of misery, centred around a has-been actress whose life slowly goes off the rails into a miasma of pointlessness, abortion, failed relationships and murder. But this is essentially where the book's power lies; in it's ability to disturb the reader and force them to reassess themselves and give thanks that their life isn't quite this bad. Didion writes the book in a spare, deadpan style that is brutally appropriate to the subject matter.
Those of a depressive disposition would probably be better off with a Harry Potter.
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on 28 October 2012
There is, wrote Charles Baudelaire, a vice which is uglier, more wicked and filthier than any other, a vice which he called "L'Ennui". This is a stronger term than the mere "boredom" which is its literal meaning, because the word also implies a state of indifference and moral and spiritual deadness. It is a state of mind frequently invoked in Baudelaire's poetry, and one which is also at the centre of Joan Didion's novel.
The central character is Maria Wyeth, a Hollywood actress in her early thirties. Fate has, in many ways, been unkind to her- her mother died in a car crash, her career is in trouble, her marriage to an uncaring husband is also failing and she has a mentally-handicapped daughter. Maria reacts by retreating into the sterile world occupied by most of the novel's other characters, one of casual and promiscuous sex, drink, drugs and "Ennui", both in its literal and its extended Baudelairean senses.

Told in a series of very short vignettes, the novel traces the progress of the disintegration of Maria's life. She is bullied into an abortion by her husband. (It is interesting that a novel by a woman writer treats abortion not as a woman's right but as another weapon of male dominance). Her marriage ends in divorce. In the final scene her moral nihilism means that she deliberately fails to prevent the suicide of a friend.

Much of the book is set in the deserts of southern California and Nevada, and Maria spends much of her time driving on long but aimless car journeys through this landscape. The imagery of the desert is clearly used to suggest the aridity of the spiritual world in which the characters live, and Maria's meaningless journeys are a symbol of her inability to escape this world. It is noteworthy that although the book is set in the late sixties or early seventies, a time of great ferment and social change in America, news of the outside world plays virtually no part in the book; Miss Didion's characters seem able to shut it out completely.

The bleakness of the world inhabited by Maria and her acquaintances means that this is certainly not a feelgood novel. It is, in many ways, not an easy one to like. It is, however, certainly one worth reading.
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