Original pub. Date: 1966
The 50th Anniversary Edition of Jacqueline Susann's All-Time Pop-Culture Classic
At a time when women were destined to become housewives, Jacqueline Susann let us dream.
Anne, Neely, and Jennifer become best friends as struggling young women in New York City trying to make their mark. Eventually, they climb their way to the top of the entertainment industry only to find that there’s no place left to go but down, into the Valley of the Dolls.
Valley of the Dolls was an overnight success when it was published in 1966, being one of the first novels written by a woman which depicted the lives of the rich and famous in fiction. There is something fascinating about how honestly Susann writes this novel and it must have been revolutionising in the 60s. Susann hides nothing, none of the ugly, none of the bad, and also the few moments of incandescent happiness everyone has. There are discussions of orgasms, mental health, drug use, periods, aging, almost everything one could think of. What I loved about Valley of the Dolls is that the women in this novel feel real. Initially I thought that I would really feel the 50 year gap between the novel and me, yet from the first page I could empathise and even identify with Anne's desire for freedom, Neely's desire for validation, and Jennifer's bitter quest to be loved for more than her body.
The novel is split into the stories of three different women, Anne, Neely and Jennifer. All three find their way to New York where they all seem to realise their dreams: they make it! Most stories end there, after the "happy ending" has been achieved, but this is where Valley of the Dolls really gets in swing. Susann allows her readers into the darker side of life, the intense doubts that haunt people throughout their life. After I finished Valley of the Dolls I wondered what it was truly about, what message, if any, we could be drawing from Susann's novel. In the end what I settled on is that Valley of the Dolls is all about the things people do for 'love': the love for others, the love for life, love of self, etc. No one in this book could necessarily be defined as "good", some characters are cold, others greedy, some plain desperate, and yet Susann describes it in such a way that we can see ourselves in their desperation. For women in the 60s it must have been a release to have an internal struggle written down, even if hyperbolically.
This novel paved the way for many more novels which imitate it but do not reach its heights. Susann describes the life of celebrity with an ease and slight disinterest that makes it all the more interesting. It's the 50s, everyone is lounging around smoking, drinking club sodas, wearing mink furs and popping pills. Susan takes advantage of our obsession with the rich and famous, with the glitz and glamour, to slip in some hard cold story lines. On the one hand you can identify with the characters as a 21st century woman, with their desire to validate themselves, their drive to make it. But they also are products of their environment and their society. The desire to settle down, to "find a man to live for" feels disingenuous to us now, as if it would signify a failure. Desperation never looks attractive, and yet everyone is desperate for love. Does this sound like high-brow literature? I don't know. But does it sound exactly like the plot of The Great Gatsby? Yes. Now what does the difference in reception tell you about how we perceive literature?
There are some absolute gems in this book, quotes which I've underlined and which simply ring true, no matter the strange situations they arose out of. One is below:
“Never let anyone shame you into doing anything you don't choose to do. Keep your identity.”Susann's writing is incredibly entertaining and keeps you glued to the page. There is a real distinction between Anne, Neely and Jennifer's voices and their journeys. Despite the 'celebrity column on a good day'-feel to the novel, there is also some genuine depth in Susann's brutal analysis of what humans do for love. The popping of the dolls to calm the nerves, to allow for sleep, to drown out the world, to not have to worry, to make it feel like that endless climb and struggle to the top was worth it, it drives the message home. You're probably not going to walk away from Valley of the Dolls feeling happy and refreshed, but you'll definitely not be forgetting about it soon.
I give this novel...
I absolutely loved Valley of the Dolls. I raced through the novel, unable to put it down and delighting in the 'dirty secret'-feeling it gave me. But some parts of the novel came dangerously close to the heart. I'd recommend this to everyone who is both up for a wild ride and some hard truths.