Jen Silverman’s debut novel, We Play Ourselves, reads like the work of a more established novelist. Silverman is no novice though. She has a body of work as a playwright and staff writer for TV shows and her sense of pacing shows clearly in the book’s plot. The reader learns from the first two pages they’re in the assured hands of a writer who knows how to immediately captivate. The protagonist, a playwright named Cass, has fled the theatre world in New York, where she has become infamous, to hide out in relative anonymity in LA. She did something horrible in New York, this act is not initially disclosed, but it’s bad enough to destroy her professional life. And that’s just the first few pages. The richness doesn’t stop there.
Part of the engrossing tension of the book is waiting to find out what it is Cass did, but plenty happens before that startling reveal. The plot weaves between two time periods, one delves into Cass’s life as an up-and-coming playwright in New York City, and the other focuses on her post-NYC life in LA, where she seeks to escape from her past foibles. But of course, as the cliché goes, everywhere you go there you are.… Cass is forced to confront her demons in LA despite her desire to escape them. Silverman does a masterful job of creating a protagonist who does unlikeable things and has unlikeable thoughts but whom the reader still roots for her. Silverman imbues Cass with a fully-realized personality; she is funny, vulnerable, sardonic, and soft-hearted beneath the carapace she hides behind. To Cass, success equals happiness. She desperately wants to be famous, the star playwright, the woman of the moment. Despite her flaws, or maybe because of them, we want her to do well.
When we see her in NYC, Cass, the winner of a prestigious playwriting award, is having her first major play produced. It’s a high-profile production with a big-name director and a TV star in the lead. Cass falls in love with the director, Helene, and starts an affair with the TV star. Helene rejects Cass’s advances and offers sage advice about her career and putting her art first. The director tells Cass to never sabotage herself in order to punish someone else. The idea that Cass may wish others ill is central to this character exploration. When her play receives a spectacularly bad review, her worst fears are realized; her actions following this fallout force her to flee New York.
When she lands in LA, Cass is at an emotional low point. While seeking anonymity, Cass meets Caroline, her charismatic next-door neighbor who is directing a film about a group of teenage girls in a fight club. She becomes the director’s number two and grows increasingly appalled at the uber-manipulative way the girls in the film are treated. Cass grows to care for one of the girls, BB, and wants the best for her. Her compassion toward BB is in stark contrast to the wholly self-centered existence she’s been living. As Cass slowly realizes the extent of the artifice of the film and the exploitation of the girls, she becomes engaged in a furious campaign to free the young women from mistreatment.
Through these various plotlines, philosophical questions arise. Where does happiness come from? Is it the heady feeling that comes with great success or the peace of mind that comes with some humility? Cass’s story is about how our worst thoughts and impulses can diminish our world. How do we work our way back? Is success the only route to happiness?
Along with Cass’s personal journey to redeem herself is a narrative rich with details on both the Hollywood system and the New York theatre scene, details that don’t put either in a particularly good light. Silverman has inside knowledge of both, and she seamlessly guides the reader through these well-drawn worlds.
We Play Ourselves contains a page-turning plot, with a truly complex character at its core. Silverman is a talented writer and knows exactly how to pace the story so the reader remains suspended in the intense world of the novel. I had a hard time putting the book down, which is always one of the best compliments a writer can receive. Silverman deserves it.
We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman Penguin Random House Hardcover, 9780399591525, February 2021