Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Publisher: Grove Press, 1966
Rating: 4 out of 5
Re-readability: I would reread it in a few years.
I thought this novel would be stale—it was written in the 1960s and it’s the first book that was frank about sex and drugs.
Instead, it was stunning.
It starts out with Ann, a small-town, all-American, moral girl leaving her hometown behind for New York City. She falls into the world of modeling, theater, and catches the eyes of men in the upper echelon. Along the way, she befriends two actresses and struggles between finding love and being realistic.
The two actresses eventually become addicted to the “dolls,” or drugs, that they first used just to get some sleep. While her friends are becoming addicted to drugs, Ann goes back and forth between being in love and being loyal. The only man she’s ever really loved has strange conditions to be with him and the man who she feels loyal to has never stirred anything up in her.
There’s no shortage of affairs and honest talk about the nature of sex. It’s a realistic portrait of how sex is viewed by both men and women, which was probably refreshing and fascinating when it was first published.
Does the Valley of the Dolls storyline sound familiar?
Susann’s novel seems to have started an entire genre of fiction. Some might call it “chick lit,” but I would argue that the impact of her work is greater than that. The Devil Wears Prada, shares the same foundational storyline: the wholesome girl leaves her safe hometown, gets lost in the face-paced, glamorous city, has her morals tested, and she gets mixed up in a few different loves.
Like I said, I thought Valley of the Dolls would be stale to me. But Susann delivers an exciting, heartbreaking, and honest story. Lyon, Ann’s true romantic interest, sums up this sentiment of losing oneself aptly: “There are many Henrys who are married and who wind up on top alone. They have to be alone, because they’ve alienated everyone along the way. In this rat race you whore, lie, cheat and use every trick you can employ to get up there where Henry is. This business demands it. And that’s what I’m ranting against. Not Henry personally, but what everyone turns into if he sticks in it long enough.”
Reading through the two decades that the book spans, I became close to the characters in a way that’s rare for me. There is something about the way that they describe each other that made me feel like I knew them, or I’d met them all before. Susann’s writing is always blunt (“There is no such thing as love, the way you talk about it. You’ll only find that kind of love in cheap movies and novels. Love is companionship, having friends in common, the same interests. Sex is the connotation you’re placing on love, and let me tell you, young lady, that if and when it does exist, it dies very quickly after marriage”‘), but that’s what make it gripping.
This book doesn’t really slow down, so just hold on from the first page to the very last.