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Valley of the Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) by Jacqueline Susann

Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel was hugely influential; it paved the way for Jackie Collins and all the other bonkbusters that followed. I’d been wanting to reach this book for ages, but knew nothing about its plot. I imagined that with that iconic cover (left) of a pair of luscious lips biting a pill, (even though my own copy is the rather lovely Barbara Hulanicki designed Virago hardback, right), it would be one long tale of bored women looking for love, and hooked on uppers and downers…

Well I was completely wrong. VotD is the perhaps more the spiritual heir of Peyton Place (reviewed here), relocated to the big smoke, than the Desperate Housewives of its day. I was pleasantly surprised by this, and also that its timeline starts so early.

The book opens just after the end of WWII. Anne Welles arrives in a sweltering New York City from New England looking for a job and a place to live. She’s young and beautiful, and everything falls into place for her. Within days she’s found a room, a job she loves at a theatrical agent, made a new friend in Neely the girl next door, and met Allen – a nice guy who takes her out.

Everything’s going so well for Anne – then someone turns up to throw a spanner in the works – Lyon Burke. Agency boss Henry’s younger partner returns from the war and Anne is instantly smitten badly. Then Allen proposes, and it turns out he’s a millionaire. They see Burke out one night at a club. He’s escorting a beautiful young woman, Jennifer North – an aspiring model and actress. She’s green with envy – what’s a girl to do?!?

Meanwhile, Anne’s neighbour, Neely has a career of her own to forge. At seventeen, she’s already a vaudeville veteran, and is up for a job in a new musical starring Henry’s long-term client, and former lover, Helen Lawson. Neely is fiercely ambitious and with Anne’s help gets into the musical and launches her career as a star in the making.

So we’ve met the three women, Anne, Neely and Jennifer, whose careers we’ll follow through their ups and downs into the 1960s. There’ll be career successes, meltdowns and comebacks; lovers, marriages, divorces, and kids too. And there will be ‘dolls’ – pills – the little green amphetamines to keep the weight off, and the red ones, initially to sleep – we all know where that goes.

The three girls are all different types. Anne is mostly too good to be true, and having the largest chunk of the novel, can be rather irritating. With stardom, Neely gets too demanding and the pills get to her, but her spirit is indomitable and for all her bad decisions, she’s a survivor. Jennifer, however is the sweetest, all the while just looking for someone to love and love her back. As for the men … I liked Henry very much. He’s the surrogate father figure who has given all to his job, and missed out on love for himself. Lyon is irresistible, but a bastard – I’d have fallen for him too, but ultimately all he’s interested in is himself.

Although this book shocked when it was published with its permissiveness (although probably a true enough reflection of showbiz relationships), reading it now doesn’t shock in the way that Peyton Place did when I read last year did. It was a little long-winded in places, but I did devour it and enjoyed it – an ideal summer read. It also reminds me that I ought to read Ira Levin’s Stepford Wives. (8/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Valley of the Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) by Jacqueline Susann
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
The Stepford Wives: Introduction by Chuck Palanhiuk by Ira Levin.

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