Living Dolls

To add to a long list of lines I wish I’d written, I read somewhere that Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann was ‘Harlequin romance meets Zola’, and it’s sort of true. It really does manage to compact twenty years’ worth of lurid celebrity magazine scandal between its covers, and to describe the trajectory of stardom as a steady downward descent into artifice and ruin. But if it takes its content from the trashiest end of the spectrum, then it also allows it to unfold with the stately grandeur of Greek tragedy. I can quite see why this novel has the status of a cult classic: it’s powerful and potent and upsetting and gripping. And the disquieting truths it purveys seem to be no less relevant now than they were in the 60s when the novel was first published.

Before the novel begins there’s a verse, much like the kind the Oracle generally offers that makes a dire prediction about climbing to the top of Mount Everest:

The air is so thin you can scarcely breathe.
You’ve made it – and the world says
you’re a hero.
But it was more fun at the bottom when you started,
with nothing more than hope
and the dream of fulfillment.

In a nutshell, this is the premise of the novel which follows the fortunes of three young, beautiful and talented women, Anne, Jennifer and Neely from 1945 to 1965. They meet up at first in New York, where Anne has come to escape the rigid confines of an emotionless New England upbringing. She finds work as a secretary to Henry Bellamy, a lawyer-advisor to showbiz celebrities and quickly falls in love with the job and the city. She finds a room in a shared house where she meets Neely, a young dancer who’s spent her whole life on the road with a touring troupe. And out on the town one night with Henry she gets her first glimpse of Jennifer, a stunning Barbie-doll beauty who is in the throes of divorcing a European prince and who is about to take up a role in a Broadway production in the hope of getting a film contract.

This Broadway production is a fateful event that will draw the three women together. Anne manages to secure Neely an understudy role in it by means of Henry’s good will, and due to the tantruming demands of its main star, the monstrous Helen Lawson who can’t bear to have any competition on stage, Neely gets promoted into a part that will suddenly make her name. For a while, Anne, Jennifer and Neely share an apartment, fulfilling their ambitions together, cementing their friendship. Then Neely heads off to Hollywood and into the demanding, glitzy drudgery of a film studio contract, and Jennifer, who has always been more interested in marriage than career as a route to security, marries a popular singer and follows him west too. Disaster follows; the marriage Jennifer has made is doomed, and Neely is completely unable to handle the money and success that come to her. Jennifer has long been taking ‘red dolls’ to help her sleep at night, and Neely is put on green ones to help her lose weight. It’s the start of a very slippery slope.

Anne’s story is quite different. Remember Austen’s Persuasion and the story of Anne Elliot’s loyal devotion to Captain Wentworth? Yup, it’s the same situation all over again, but transposed into a very different context. Anne meets Lyon Burke at Henry’s office. He is recently returned from the war and everyone at the office is agog to have him back. Henry warns Anne off him right from the start; there’s something about Lyon that makes all the women fall in love with him, and yet Lyon is that scourge of romantic hope – a fundamentally self-contained ladies’ man. It doesn’t prevent Anne from beginning an intense relationship with him, intense for her in any case as he breaks through her previous indifference to all men. And for a while things go well, even if Lyon is adamantly opposed to settling down. But Anne’s mother dies, and she inherits the family home in detested Lawrenceville, the town she was so desperate to leave. When Lyon sees it he falls in love with it (much more than with Anne) and asks her to marry him on the understanding they will live in Lawrenceville while he writes his novel. It’s a deal-breaker, and Anne can’t face the prospect. But in saving herself from provincial incarceration she loses Lyon. He moves to England, and many years will pass before she sees him again. When they are finally reunited, Austen’s script for Persuasion is brutally rewritten. I won’t tell you what happens, but the essential goodness of Anne, her loyalty, her good sense, her compassion, are not rewarded.

The message of the book is one that we’re familiar with: women, when they are beautiful or talented at performance, are rapidly turned into commodities, exploited and objectified. And celebrity exerts a pressure so bulldozing that no one individual can stand up to it without significant emotional and mental support. Jennifer and Neely both come from terrible family backgrounds, Neely having never known a proper family and Jennifer fighting off the demands of an emotionally-blackmailing, cash-greedy mother. They don’t stand a chance in the white-hot glare of the entertainment industry. What’s upsetting is that so little has changed. Success still comes at the same price today – the individual’s life disemboweled and sacrificed to the demands of the business, and self-worth destroyed not enhanced by the adoration of an audience. Few people seem able to negotiate with the tyranny of fame or get the better of it, even though it’s been courted and chased in it present international form for many decades now. That must make this book one of the rare popular novels to remain timely 50 years after publication. I’m glad I read it and it will remain with me – it’s a gripping morality tale that clearly still needs to be heard.

14 thoughts on “Living Dolls

  1. I have heard that this book is very SHOCKING. I love the word shocking and I have heard it applied to this book. Did you find it SHOCKING? Like Forever Amber or Peyton Place?

  2. You’re right, SHOCKING is a great word. Alas, I didn’t find Valley of the Dolls even lower-case shocking. But you may just be talking to the wrong person – years of graphic European novels have hardened my sensibilities to print. But I would probably have found it an eye-opener at 18. And I must read both Forever Amber and Peyton Place. After Gone with the Wind – I’m clearly on a roll. 🙂

  3. What an interesting review, Litlove. I think that there is something inevitably distorting about celebrity. How can any human being stay steady on his/her feet when treated like something monstrous–whether that’s more than human or less than?

  4. I’ve not read Valley of the Dolls, but decided early in your review that I will… during our southern winter, perhaps, when I suspect it will be just the thing for a rainy weekend.

  5. Sounds like quite the book. Leave it to you though to pull out from a popular “trashy” read, the most pertinent and redeeming elements to make it sound almost literary. If I ever write a novel I’d want you to write about it because you’d make me feel so much smarter 🙂

  6. I remember reading this one about 20 years ago. You are so right about it still being timely. It is a deliciously trashy book with some good moral lessons thrown in!

  7. Well, if I didn’t KNOW that I tried (I mean, really TRIED) to get through this one a few years ago after seeing a fascinating play that was about Susann’s life, and just couldn’t, I would be racing to revisit it. All I can say is that I am awe of your ability to gave stuck with it and to gave come up with such an interesting analysis.

  8. I know this is considered trashy reading–no doubt for its style and lurid subject, but it’s also an interesting social study of a period–and as you say one that hasn’t really changed with the times unfortunately. It says something that this one hasn’t just faded away into obscurity. I read it several years back–you know there was a movie made as well, but the book is much better.

  9. I see the book in a new light now! It doesn’t seem trashy at all. You make me want to re-read it (I was young and callow when I read it first time around and didn’t see in it what you have.) But, I really must urge you to find the movie. It will make you want to eat something terrible for you – like batter-fried Mounds bars and Moon Pies. Wonderful trash. The theme song of the movie, though, is really pretty and haunting.

  10. Fascinating review and I was interested to see (over at Wikipedia) how her own experiences informed the book. Just reading your review I wondered about the relationships between those three friends for a start. Can’t wait to see what you make of GWTW!

  11. Whoa, I have read and loved Valley of the Dolls, but never thought about the Austen parallels! You’ve blown my mind and enhanced my reading of this book, litlove 😀 Great post!

  12. Lilian – I do appreciate what you say there about being seen as either more or less than human – yes! That’s precisely the monstrousness of celebrity; you hit the nail on the head.

    Doctordi – it is a good rainy weekend book. Yes, I think you’d like it – it’s very potent stuff and I thought not so terribly written as people would make out. In fact, I found it clever and well-plotted and just very dark indeed. Would love to know what you think of it.

    Dorothy – oh I completely agree – I would loathe to have to live in the public eye! But I must say I didn’t find this book depressing. I found Olive Kitteridge depressing, but this has a certain plasticity that saves it, and it’s gripping, and if the ending is upsetting, well, you can sort of see that coming.

    Stefanie – my friend, you ever write a novel, you send it straight on over to me. I’d make reviewing it a top priority, and I’d bet good money that it just would be wonderful. 🙂

    Kathleen – absolutely right – trash with morals. Now you don’t see that so very much, do you? 😉

    Emily – I am sure you are far too pure a person to enjoy Valley of the Dolls. You have to have a dark side, I think, to get into it. Never mind – the play sounds very fascinating. I didn’t find out much about Susann, but she did seem to have had a tabloid-y life. I should look for an autobiography!

    Danielle – I really enjoyed it, actually! And I thought it had a lot to say about all sorts of things – feminism, the entertainment industry, the use of psychopharmaceuticals (that was hard to type!). It struck me as odd that in all this time, nothing has changed. We still think pills will make us feel better, the entertainment industry still eats people up and spits them out, and as for feminism, well, let’s not get into that right now. The subject matter may be trashy, but I didn’t think the treatment was.

    Grad – ooh Danielle also mentioned the movie, and yes, I really should get hold of it. My parents gave me a copy of the movie of Gone With the Wind yesterday, and that’s my next blockbuster, I think. I don’t know what to do first – read the book or watch the film! And I rather like picking apart popular fiction. I once shocked a roomful of graduates (I was a grad myself) by giving a paper on Mills and Boon and Harlequin romances. It was all kinds of fun.

    David – I do in fact own a copy of Forever Amber, and I will get it down from the shelves. Other bloggers have mentioned it in connection with the blockbuster challenge and I am indeed most intrigued. And I have to say I didn’t actually find this book depressing – tragic at the end, yes, but sort of gripping through the middle sections, even though it did not take a PhD to figure out it wasn’t going to end well! 🙂

    Pete – I’m glad you enjoyed it – it was fun to do. One of the many things I must get hold of out of this project includes a biography of Susann. She does seem to have had an equally lurid life. GWTW up next – but it may take a couple of weeks for me to read it!

    KT – your comment makes me very happy indeed. I always review in the hope that someone’s reading will be the better for it, so thank you!

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