Book Review: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Valley of the Dolls was originally published in 1966 – the edition I have dates from 1982.

This book was passed on to me by mum, after I read and enjoyed Lace by Shirley Conran. Although I can see the similarities between them, Valley of the Dolls was quite different. I enjoyed the book and the escapism of it, sometimes it feels nice to just allow my brain to relax and get sucked in to a story.

If Lace was over the top in its fashion and sex scenes, then I reckon Valley of the Dolls could match that with its views of Hollywood, alcoholism and drug abuse. That makes it sound quite dark, and it is, I suppose. As in Lace the story follows the lives of a group of women, this time from 1945 to 1965:

Anne comes to New York with dreams of escaping from her small town hometown full of small-minded people. She falls in love with the wrong man and spends the rest of her life picking up the pieces.

Neely is a Vaudeville singer, loveably naive and desperate to become a star, who becomes a Hollywood sensation with a fierce temper and self-destructive tendencies…

Jennifer is a rising star at the beginning of the novel, not a particularly great actress or singer, but famous for her curves, struggling to support her family and overcome the nagging feeling that no one will ever love her for more than her body.

Anne joins a law practice who offer legal representation to the stars – she is noticed for her beauty and soon falls reluctantly into the kind of glamorous life that most of the other women in the novel could only dream of. Anne is probably the only character in the novel whose morals remain largely intact, and her only real cruelty to others comes from her indecision and feeling that it is wrong to let people down. Anne becomes a star in her own right, but she is overshadowed by her friends Jennifer and Neely, she is pressured by her fiancé to get married and have sex before marriage, and I hate the way that he thinks he can get what he wants, just because he has money:

‘I always get what I want, Anne – and I want you. I want you to love me. And you will!’

It gives me the creeps just thinking about it, but I forget that the time when the novel is set, and indeed when it was written, held much fewer options and equality for women. This issummed up again by the succint and ever-pleasurable words of Anne’s fiancé:

‘This is a man’s world – women only own it when they’re young.’

The novel is obsessed with youth, most obviously through the character of Jennifer, who lies about her age, has strict routines to keep herself looking young, and who is eventually led to having a face lift by her agent, Claude. The older woman, Helen Lawson, is constantly berated behind her back for her age, and it is only later on in the novel when Anne is in her mid thirties and she sees Helen again that she realises she wasn’t old at all – just that people perceived her to be so.

I found some of the dialogue to be a little overblown, and for some reason the narrator sounded like a New York hack in my head, like this was all being narrated to me in a shady noir film. I can’t explain why. I enjoyed it though, and it was an interesting peek into the world of showbiz in New York and Hollywood – the Broadway shows and the threat of television on the old cinema studios.

Where Valley of the Dolls really comes into its own is in the descriptions of excess, shown brilliantly in the passages about Neely, her drug use and the rationalisation of her drug use that makes the reader almost forget what she is doing:

She refilled her glass, then realised she was drinking too fast. Better sip it, with a few more pills. She reached under her pillow – she had hidden three red dolls there. She swallowed them and sipped the Scotch slowly. The pills were finally working – she felt lethargic. But she couldn’t sleep. She refilled her glass. Damn, the bottle was nearly empty. And no cigarettes. Well, maybe a few more dolls. But she had taken so many – and that could be dangerous.

This is a typical night in for Neely, using seconals (the ‘red dolls’) to get to sleep. When she started taking them, one was all she needed, but as time goes on, she needs little green dolls to get her up in the morning, and copious amounts of alcohol and pills to sleep at night. Neely’s descent led to what was, for me, the most disturbing part of the novel – her spell in a sanitarium. It is quite frightening how many women were there with her who had been tricked into going there, and then held there while the doctors convinced their next of kin that it was in their best interests to stay for a while longer. The doctors were all men, passing judgement on these women, with nurses watching their every move, every single show of emotion recorded and put on file as evidence of mental instability. It made me shudder. Neely survives the ordeal and comes out again fighting, but she is willing to sacrifice almost anything to get her own way, ruining lives and friendships as she pleases herself. As she puts it, you get used to having the ‘studio treating you like you were Jesus Christ’ and it becomes a habit to get your own way all of the time as you’ve never been told ‘no’.

I felt sorry for Jennifer – she has travelled the world, dated famous film stars and singers but never really finds someone to love her for her mind. I won’t say too much about her story as I don’t want to spoil the ending. The ending isn’t pretty for any of the women and I’m not convinced that any of them got what they wanted – there was a price to pay for success sometimes and these women learnt it the hard way.

Has anyone read Valley of the Dolls? What did you make of it, and did you have a favourite character? I think my feelings for each of the three women changes throughout the novel. Anne is a bit sappy for me, Neely too cruel in the end, so I think it has to be Jennifer – nothing to do with the fact that we have the same name!

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