Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

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In a nutshell: Trash fiction that you can pass off as intellectual.

How long: 2 weeks

Where I finished it: Lunchtime while my pasta went cold.

Favourite quote: ‘Looking twenty-eight seems to be an infectious disease that most women catch the moment they hit forty.’

Would I read it again: Just try and stop me.

I bought this book on a complete whim. Partly because it sounded like the kind of book Rory Gilmore would read, mostly because it’s incredibly beautiful. I mean really, just look at that cover. I never really got the hardback thing before but with this book I can completely see the appeal.

This is the first book I’ve bought in months that I’ve actually got round to reading. In fact I started it the day I bought it. And I wasn’t very optimistic, expecting it to be really hard to get into. Boy was I wrong. It was so addictive and easy to read that one day later I was a third of the way through it. So why, you ask, did it take me two weeks to finish it? Well that was a conscious decision made to save my sanity.

Anytime I put the book aside to do something else, something as necessary as eating dinner or going to sleep, I started to get serious book withdrawal. I couldn’t stop thinking about getting back to reading. And because the book is such a gritty, unromanticised account of life this was causing a gnawing, anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something I haven’t had with a book since my first read of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, all those years ago. It was like the book was a drug – which is pretty appropriate considering the theme of the title – and as much as I felt better while I was reading it I knew that one day soon I’d finish it and have to go cold turkey and it would be almost unbearable.

So I did the sensible thing and had a few days detox. Which was incredibly hard but did give me time to remember that in normal life everyone isn’t hopped up on drugs and on the verge of a breakdown. And eventually I was able to finish it without getting quite so involved that it was affecting me even when I wasn’t reading it.

Thinking it would be hard to get into was just one of many assumptions I made about this book that was wrong. I expected the whole book to be arty and pretentious when in fact it’s trash fiction at its very best. But much like Jane Austen, who was considered a ‘woman’s author’ and nothing sophisticated while she was alive, time has moved this book to a legitimate classic (or at least a cult classic) and an iconic feminist read.

As much as I could carry on passionately condemning everyone who judged this book without reading it, me included, I don’t think that would do a very good job of convincing you to read it. And you really should read it.

I suppose a sophisticated summing up of this book would be that it portrays the unavoidable cost of aging. These young women who start off so optimistic, with nothing to lose, laughing at the Helen Lawson character for lying about her age and desperately clinging on to her youth, end up in exactly the same situation. But without an English literature degree to back up my ideas that could be complete bullshit. In layman’s terms, three women move to New York, become famous and find that the price is too high.

I really related to Anne at the beginning, which I suppose was the idea – she was the bridge character between the world of the reader and the world in the book – but once she started moping after Lyon Burke I got a little impatient with her. Thankfully not long after the narrative switched to following Jennifer and Neely. And Neely especially I just loved. She’s definitely not a nice person, I would not want her as a friend, but to observe from a distance she’s right up my street. Over the top emotions, a deeply flawed personality and a selfish streak are my favourite traits in a character. She was the Marianne Dashwood of the 1940s. And a Colonel Brandon character might have sorted Neely right out. After all, she just wanted to be loved.

The ending, which is so important to me in every book I read, was right on the money too. I liked how time started to pass in large dollops as we dropped in every year to see how life was progressing for them. I wasn’t left asking questions; I can picture how their lives turned out right until they were in their 80s. And from everything I learnt about the characters their endings fit as perfectly as everything else.

Before I get too carried away I should point out that no book is perfect, this one included. At times the characters became borderline cliché. Lyon Burke especially, who was too overtly pitched as a ‘stud’ for it to actually come across – show me, don’t tell me. And some of the risqué sex seemed to be there just to make the book a sensation, rather than actually adding anything to the plot. But I can forgive it all these things because it more than compensates for its flaws.

I will leave you with a quote from the poem at the front of the book which acts as something between a prologue and a synopsis:

You’ve got to climb to the top of Mount Everest

to reach the Valley of the Dolls.

It’s a brutal climb to reach that peak,

which so few have seen.

You never knew what was really up there,

but the last thing you expected to find

was the Valley of the Dolls.

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