Decadent, salacious and satisfying (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
This edition published by Virago in 2008. Originally published in 1966.
I read the hardback edition which is 418 pages.
Oh, my pretty. What a spectacularly gorgeous cover swathes you…!
I’ve said before that I simply covet these fabulous Virago Designer editions and I was lucky enough to receive several more for Christmas this year. This cover was designed by the wonderful Barbara Hulanicki- I have fallen in love with her wallpaper in the past; alas it is pretty expensive (and admittedly a bit odd) to cover your entire hallway in skull wallpaper, is it not?
My boyfriend categorically said that there was no way we were having that in our house.
That’s just mean.
Anyway, Valley of the Dolls is a book I have been looking forward to diving into, chic cover aside. To me, it sounded like a slightly less salacious version of a Jackie Collins novel, and with the promise of pill-popping, showbiz sleaze and the destruction of the American dream in there, needless to say I knew it was a novel I’d adore. Handily, it is also on the Guardian 1000 books to read list, so that ticks off two boxes for me in one go. Bonus.
A riveting combination of mishmash anti-feminist text and a somewhat cautionary tale about the perils of poor judgement, Valley of the Dolls is the tale of three very different women who fight for their independence-and love- in a male-dominated showbusiness industry.
Talking of characters, we have a real mixed bag here- three very different ladies with extremely varying personalities who somehow end up as friends. There’s prudish Anne, arriving in New York from Massachusetts and determined to escape the confines of her home town and break away from what is expected of her: namely marrying and having children. Anne wants a career and is taken on as a secretary within a talent agency. She loves New York and is determined to carve out her own life for herself in the city. Also, in contrast to her peers she doesn’t want to hook herself a rich man and vows she will only ever marry for love.
Rooming with Anne in her boarding house is seventeen-year-old Neely, a vaudeville performer who has star quality written all over her. Blessed with a beautiful voice, Neely is awaiting her big break on Broadway, but when it arrives, will it be everything she hoped for?
Lastly there is Jennifer, arguably the nicest and most realistic of the three, a woman who understands that though she initially gets by on her beauty, at the end of the day, looks really aren’t any substitute for natural talent. By the time she has made this realisation however, and potentially learned to be happy, will it be too late?
From the summary, you’d expect the ‘dolls’ in the title to refer to the three female protagonists- particularly as the connotation of ‘dolls’ seems to infer women, though that is not actually the case. The ‘dolls’ in this instance are actually the numerous sleeping and diet pills that the characters take to frequently popping; the red sleeping pills in particular, that Neely lovingly refers to as her ‘red dolls,’ purely in order to function on a daily basis. I told you it was sleazy…
Admittedly, whilst some of the characters within Valley of the Dolls fuel all kinds of stereotypes and are riddled with clichés (particularly what happens to a woman once you ‘age’ in the showbiz industry), all in all I found this an enthralling read and a fascinating look as to how women are exploited, not only by men, but by the entertainment industry in general. It was certainly a reflection of the times, though left me questioning just how much of its message is still prevalent today. The writing flows well and the descriptions of New York are truly wonderful. The novel really embodies the decadence of the city post-war and perfectly captures the glamour of the 1950’s era- though evidently not everything was glamourous, as we see from these three women’s perspectives. I also adored how culturally, the book encapsulated the rise of television and its impact on the movie and theatre world. The insight into the world of show business was voyeuristic, melodramatic and scandalous and I adored it.
This is indeed a book of extreme contrasts however. On the one hand we have its female characters trying to assert their independence and then on the other they tolerate deplorable behaviour from the men in their lives- men who they only seemed to put up with in order to further their careers. The relationships were for the most part, inherently unhealthy and this aspect of the novel did bother me slightly. I also didn’t particularly like the concept that basically EVERY man was portrayed as a cheater. That aside, I can see why this book caused so much controversy when it was initially published in the 1960’s; strong-willed women trying to get ahead (ahem) by any means possible would have been slightly outrageous at the time. The fact that this was also written from a genuine showbiz insider’s perspective undoubtedly raised eyebrows.
The book is full of backstabbing and cat fights and has some memorable one-liners. Just when you think you have ‘understood’ the characters, their superficiality and what makes them tick, their actions cause you to completely rethink your opinion. Personally I found girl next door Anne to be far too goody-goody for my tastes (she reminded me a bit of Elizabeth Wakefield in Sweet Valley High) and whilst I liked Jennifer enough, she wasn’t in the novel long enough for me to form a particularly concerted opinion about her. Whilst I LOATHED Neely (bloody hell she was a bitch), she made for excellent reading with all of her questionable actions and complete lack of moral compass. She was certainly her own worst enemy, so why oh why was she continually able to come out on top?
Whilst I’d not anticipated a happy ending for this book, I found it to be pretty poignant and it left me wanting more, if I’m honest. A dream is obtained and then piece by piece, is torn away again- it made me feel a bit hollow and empty, which I’m guessing is just what the author was aiming for. That aside, the ending was certainly in keeping with the rest of the plot.
After finishing this novel, I am once again reminded of just how much I love a good, sordid, scandal-filled read. Happily, I have some more of Jackie Collin’s books put to one side that nicely fit into this genre, which I’m going to have to dig into soon.