A classic in any genre is a few and far between phenomenon. But when this phenomenon occurs, it endures. It endures through decades and time, inspiring generations, pop culture and even life and the way we live it.
One such classic in women’s fiction and the so-called ‘bonkbuster’/chick lit genre is Jacqueline Susann’s acclaimed classic ‘Valley of the Dolls’. Any chicklista worth her salt will have read this at some point or the other. I recall reading my mother’s copy of the book underneath my blanket using a flashlight (when I read it, it was deemed too ‘forward’ and ‘racy’). So imagine my delight when I found out that Virago was re-publishing the book on its 50th Anniversary and they wanted me to review this as part of the 50th Anniversary blog tour! This book captured the imagination of readers everywhere and exposed the pill popping culture of Hollywood and beyond. On the surface if exposes the sordid and empty lives of the cream of the Hollywood elite but at a more basic level, it unveils the tragedy and the hopelessness of the human condition….indeed it shows us that sometimes when it appears to the world that you have everything…wealth, talent, adulation and admiration of million, you still ultimately end up with nothing.
So what is a doll? In old school Hollywood terminology, a doll is a pill. If we were to refer to this fantastic book, the pills in question would be Secconols or when required, Diet pills and the like. Why were these so important? The heroines in this novel relied on these, loved these and ultimately, these brought their downfall. These pills were the main characters in the novel and the novel really revolved around them, although they made an entrance after the first one-third of the book.
The story follows Anne, Neely and Jennifer, three hopefuls who had their own individual goals, aspirations and dreams, all three starting out in the Big Apple NYC aiming high and hoping to reach their ambitions. Anne wanted to escape her New England background and live life on her own terms, Neely, a rare, raw and talented singer/performer wanted to break out of her humble roots and turn into a big Broadway star and Jennifer, with her drop dead gorgeous looks wanted to turn into a big Hollywood star and ultimately bag a rich husband who would support her and love her throughout her days.
So did any of them achieve what they wanted? They did and they didn’t, this my lovely readers is something for you to find out and it is worth finding out, believe me. This lovely book is a page turner, an enduring classic, it always was and it always will be, even in 2016. It is also no wonder this was made into a move in 1967.
Readers will love Anne, for her upstanding principles, her drive, her unswerving loyalty to her friends and her ultimate vulnerability to her one weakness in life, Lyon Burke. Lyon Burke, a grey character, who loved Anne, but not enough. Not enough to give her all of his body, heart and soul as she deserved. Life is kind to Anne who starts out as a secretary to Theatrical Attorney Henry Bellamy but reaches the height of fame as a ‘Gillian Girl’, becoming a cover girl/model, her face being featured on television screen nationwide. Lyon Burke is her Achilles heel, the one chink in her armour and she can do anything to be with him forever. And it is Lyon Burke who ultimately drives Anne to let the ‘dolls’ into her life, she had no choice really….If there is one character that you will love and despair for in the novel, it will be Anne.
Readers will love Jennifer, for the inner child that lives within her, for her lost childhood and dreams of having a husband and family of her own. Saddled with a materialistic parent who keeps fleecing her for any sum of money she can get her hands on, Jennifer is a sad and complicated character with a shady and licentious past which she has kept under wraps. The ‘dolls’ help keep her sane, she realises that she has outstanding beauty, however she also realises that she has zero talent and her beauty will fade and she will only be able to sustain her fame for a limited time. The love of a good (and also wealthy) man and a family is her main goal, and although she turns into a hugely popular Hollywood Star, it is all she has ever wanted. She does achieve this goal, put pays a grave and final price for it all. If there is one character that you will grieve for, it is Jennifer.
Readers will both love and hate Neely. Neely starts out as an eager, excitable seventeen year old, participating in her sister and brother in law’s Vaudeville Shows, innocent in her youthfulness, hope and vigour. If anything, she is the character I felt the most fond of initially, as she had a charm that none of the characters in the novel did and the author gave various clues as to how brilliant her raw and rare talent was. During the course of the novel, Neely, with the help of her most loyal friend Anne, gets a rare break when an old and established star kicks out her under study in a play and the director is persuaded to hire her instead. This launches her career as a huge Broadway star and then later a Hollywood Superstar. At this juncture, the ‘dolls’ enter her life, helping her to sleep at night and lose the weight that the Hollywood studio heads keep wanting her to keep off. The dolls help her achieve the stardom that she desires but also unleash her arrogant, untenable monstrous ego. She turns egotistical and selfish as several other stars with her level of talent and popularity do and like those before her, she starts on a path of wilful self-destruction. Loyalty and friendship mean nothing to her. If there is on character that the readers will both adore and then despise in turn, it is Neely.
I read the book in one sitting and believe that if you love books and are a fan of this genre, it is nigh impossible that you will not do the same. If I could give this book more than five stars I would. Thus dear reader, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, if you have never read this book, please buy it and read it. If you have read this book some years ago, like me, same advice, please buy it and read it. It is truly one of a kind and comes along rarely!
About the Author:
Jacqueline Susann is a legend in American publishing. Susann was the first
author to have three consecutive #1 books on the New York Times Bestseller List. She was
married to her beloved husband, producer Irving Mansfield, until her untimely death
on September 21, 1974, after a courageously fought battle with breast cancer. Susann’s
intensely private twelve-year fight to overcome the disease was not known publicly
until after death. She was 56.