Dolls … a way for a girl to find security. Dolls … a friend to help a girl to lay down cares and get rest. Dolls … a source of playfulness and energy to get through the day. Dolls … something to cling to when you find your way to the top and discover what no one tells you … that it’s more fun at the bottom than at the summit.
I’m not talking Barbie or American Girl when I talk of “Dolls” here. Sure, these Dolls come in a variety of colors … green, blue, red and yellow. But they aren’t found at a toy store. In this Valley, these dolls come in prescription bottles and are more commonly referred to as stimulants, depressants, diet pills, and sleeping pills.
Assigned by the #ClassicsChallenge2016 to read a trashy novel, I made a wise selection when I chose Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. It was a stirring and fascinating read with characters who possess a vibrancy that made them real to me. And the book, 50 years after its publication date, absolutely stands the test of time. It’s sexy and raw. I’d planned to pick it up at the library but when I stopped by Barnes & Noble and found one solitary copy, I didn’t hesitate … grabbing it and opening to the first words … a poem actually … to see if it was something I wanted to add to my bookshelf.
I was drawn in.
“You’ve got to climb to the top of Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls,” the poem began. “It’s a brutal climb … but the last thing you expected to find was the Valley of the Dolls. You stand there, waiting for the rush of exhilaration … but it doesn’t come … You’re alone and the feeling of loneliness is overpowering…The elements have left you battered, deafened, sightless — and too weary to enjoy your victory.”
I will admit though that like the readers of the Fifty Shades series I was tempted to wrap it in a brown paper cover. I mean, everyone’s heard about this book wrought with drug addiction and a very frank look at sexuality — it was described as “decades ahead of its time.” I’ve seen the 1980’s mini-series (with Lisa Hartman, Veronica Hamill, Catherine Hicks, David Birney and all those popular stars of the era) so I had some idea where it would go. But … what a great ride.
The cover is by no means subtle. And it hasn’t been updated since the initial publication. It still features that pink color background, cut out pills and the faces of the three main characters peeking thru — their eyes and hair styles so very 1960 with expressions wary yet strong, and no apologies for their ambitions, desires, choices and behavior..
“They say I’m difficult. They say I’m drunk even when I’m not. Sure, I take dolls – I’ve got to get some sleep. I’ve got to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and ‘Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!'” – Neely O’Hara
There are a lot of dolls in this book. Characters pop them like candy to serve their emotional issues and help them get through their days and nights.
Valley of the Dolls is NOT Fifty Shades of Grey … thank goodness. Valley of the Dolls breathes life into characters that are so meticulously defined as to seem real. Valley of the Dolls has a feminist tone to it. And the women in it are fighters you can’t help but cheer for, more than slightly ahead of their 1945 start date.
Released in 1966, the book was an overnight success, becoming the year’s bestselling work of fiction. Since that time, it has sold 30 million copies (well, 30 million and ONE now), making it one of the bestselling books of all time.
What earns it that “bestselling” rank? Both the writing and the characters draw you in. The story is descriptive and interesting, keeping you turning the pages with enthusiasm and dread too, since you know the girls are going up and then down. You cheer for them. And you suffer with them too.
You first meet Anne, a smalltown, wealthy East Coast beauty with class who comes straight off “the boat” into New York City, determined to make her mark and experience life. She finds quick success and attracts a rich guy whose desperate to marry her. But Anne wants to hold out for real love. She finds the guy … gets the guy … loses the guy … gets the guy back but then tries to control the guy — her big mistake. And that plunges her from the top into that damn Valley.
In the early chapters, Anne befriends sweet Neely who lives in the same shabby apartment building. She’s a vaudeville artist originally known as Ethel Agnes O’Neill who coins her last name after spending a long evening reading Gone With The Wind. Scarlett and Neely have a lot in common, though Neely’s character is shamelessly and transparently based on Judy Garland. Neely is the first character to experience sex and share it unabashedly with all the readers (it’s Trash, remember). Neely rises to super-stardom and becomes vicious and arrogant at her peak — plunging into the psych ward but clawing her way out again with destruction in her wake.
And then we meet Jennifer — drawn clearly from the image of fascinating Marilyn Monroe — an ambitious blonde insomniac whose intelligence may be overlooked but whose beauty and buxom figure never will be. Jennifer’s sex life runs the gamut. A product of a bad home life and a needy, greedy mother, all Jennifer truly wants is to find someone to love her and have babies. And she knows how to do that. “Remember there’s only one way to own a man,” she tells Anne. “By making him want you.” And when she finds the right guy … well, that would be telling and I’m not gonna spoil it for you. But I’m sure you can guess by now that this book doesn’t have a Disney tone or a Disney ending.
The supporting characters and their adventures on the pages of this book are 3D real. You see echoes of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman on the pages. And you find yourself cheering for Neely to find success, hoping Anne will finally have the nerve to love out loud, and longing for Jennifer to get the guy, find happiness and have that baby. And, when they start taking the pills … well … it’s devastating.
Jennifer takes the Red … the Seconals … to sleep. And the Blue to end the pain.
Neely takes the Green at first … to lose the weight … and then adds Scotch to the mix with a variety of “Dolls” to help her find strength to wake and face the gruelling, unglamourous real Hollywood life.
And Anne … sweet Anne. She holds out the longest. She’s the strongest of them all. But her love for Lyon does her in and she ends up with the Red too. To get her through.
Uppers, downers, pills to cope and pills to sleep. Plenty of sex. Glimpses of life at its real peak … before these characters find themselves lost in the Valley of the Dolls.
Read it. It’s Trashy. But Valley of the Dolls is a classic that stands the test of time. I just heard Madonna, J Lo and Anne Hathaway may be starring in a remake of the film …