This month we’re covering the books we read as kids, but probably shouldn’t have. So, with that in mind, today’s book is very near and dear to my heart.
Valley of the Dolls is singularly responsible for the person I am today. Let me explain. It’s the summer of 1997. I’m 12 years old, on the cusp of middle school and teenagedom. I have a Guinness Book of World Records that lists Valley of the Dolls as the best-selling book of all time. I am intrigued, so I ask my mom about it. She tells me it’s a trashy soap opera book, and that it’s really, really dumb. I am only more intrigued. I finally convince her to take me to a book store to pick up a copy (that I still have to this very day and used on this re-read) so that I can discover why this book was the best-selling book of all time (for a period.)
Valley of the Dolls was the first adult book I consciously made an effort to read, and it’s the singular event that changed how I viewed myself and the world around me. Once I was done with it, I no longer thought of myself as a kid but as a young sophisticate on the verge of adulthood (being a teenager was obviously a mature thing to be in my mind at that time). Friends, this book has it all. Sex. Drugs. Affairs. More Sex. And the nagging suspicion that adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In case you were not a 12-year old in Anchorage Alaska who read this book, the plot can be described thusly: Beautiful career girl Anne, singer/actress Neely, and gorgeous (yet talentless) model/actress Jennifer are all trying to make it in the world. They meet through happenstance—Anne and Neely live at the same boarding house, and they meet Jennifer through a work colleague of Anne’s. Anne, our main heroine, could have had a career as a model (she’s told how beautiful she is, repeatedly) but instead she wants to focus on having a career, so she gets a job (as an assistant, I think. I’ll be honest, you don’t read Valley of the Dolls for the career parts.) Naturally, she is so gorgeous that two men fall in love with her. The hot, yet clearly an a*shole Lyon Burke, and the secretly wealthy Allen Cooper. Allen kind of sort of convinces Anne to marry him, but then she forgoes that half-hearted promise in order to get it on with Lyon Burke on a business trip. Hey. We’ve all been there.
Anyway, things go down on this business trip that leave Anne in a jam, so she reaches out to Jennifer for help. After that, the three ladies decide to room together, and Valley of the Dolls is really hitting full steam ahead.
Neely becomes successful in her own right too, outshining established star of the stage Helen Lawson. In fact, she’s getting so successful that it’s time for her to leave New York and move to Los Angeles to become a real star. She gets herself married and moves out west. Jennifer, too, gets herself married and moves out west. So, Anne is left in New York, waiting for Lyon to marry her, only he won’t until he’s successful as a writer. OK, Lyon.
Things all fall apart. Neely cheats on her husband. Jennifer gets pregnant, but then secretly aborts her child because her husband (there is no delicate way to put this and believe me I’m trying) has a mental disability that she didn’t know about but would certainly pass down to her child. Also, during this time, Jennifer begins to take “dolls” (pills) to pass the time and to help her sleep.
Cut to a few years later.
Lyon is out of the picture (he’s gone off to write his book) and Anne is the successful face of a cosmetics line that has made her filthy rich. She is having an affair with the owner of the cosmetics line because that’s simply what one does. Jennifer has left Hollywood and moved to France to appear nude in movies. She is a terrible actress, but her body is so incredible people love her anyway. (This is an important plot point to remember for later.) Neely is still super successful.
Cut to a few years later, after that.
Now Neely is taking dolls (and alcohol) to cope with the pressures of fame and staying thin. She is no longer super successful. (I should note that Neely is basically Judy Garland, on whom I’m pretty sure this character is based. People on the internet agree.)
Neely gets fired from her film contract and has already gone through two marriages, so she attempts suicide. Things are not good for Neely.
Cut to a few years later (this book certainly loves its time jumps.)
Now Jennifer is engaged to a Senator. However, it’s discovered that she has breast cancer and needs a mastectomy. Before she can tell her fiancé the news that not only does she have cancer, it means that she can’t have children, he cuts her off and literally tells her that her breasts are her children. I am not kidding here one iota.
Here’s where it gets really … Valley of The Dolls-like. Rather than live without a perfect body, Jennifer kills herself. God bless how truly and utterly trashy this book is. This is a part of the suicide note she leaves, I s*it you not: “I had to leave—to save your babies. Thanks for making it all almost come true.” I cannot believe I read this at 12!
Anyway, it’s not over yet, not by a long shot.
Lyon returns to town, and Anne breaks off her engagement with the makeup executive, and they get married and have a little girl. Anne secretly bankrolls Lyon’s return to the business world, where he becomes a partner in his old job, at a talent agency. He goes on to rep Neely who gets her comeback (and I seriously hope you see where this is headed, now). Lyon and Neely engage in a years-long affair.
Anne is given dolls to cope with the pain and stress of Lyon’s affair with Neely, and the book seriously ends with Anne realizing that while she will stay with Lyon for now (with the help of the dolls) she will love him less and less with every affair, until she no longer loves him at all.
So, I haven’t reread this book since 1997, because it was such a huge thing at the time for me, that I didn’t think I could top the experience of reading it for the first time. I was right.
The sheer trash and tawdry-ness of the book (it’s how I learned what the rhythm method was!) blew my mind at 12. I had never encountered such glorious trash up until that point, and it became a mission of mine to track down as much of it as possible afterward because this book taught me that I simply love trashy, messy things. The knowingness of this damn book, and how it reveled in the sheer insanity of its characters’ lives truly shaped my outlook on the world.
As a teenager, every time that I would act like a diva, or screech at my mom for some slight, she would shake her head and say, “I never should have gotten you Valley of the Dolls. Apparently, it was such a marked shift in my personality after reading this book that she will still mention it to this day.
Valley of the Dolls taught me what it would be like to be an adult (I mean, it was a false idea, but the thought was there.) It opened my eyes to a whole world of adults behaving terribly and glamorously, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that world, come hell or high water. And to some degree, I did (in my 20s, but that is a story for another time, friends.)
When I started reading Valley of the Dolls, I was a kid, but by the time I finished reading it, I was someone who clearly was going to be an adult in the not-too-distant future. No other book transformed me like that, and at 34 years old, I think it’s pretty fitting that Jacqueline Susann’s masterpiece of trash would be the one to do it.
Obviously upon rereading this dumb, glorious book, basically none of it would be considered socially acceptable in a modern reading, so if you want to pick this up, keep that in mind. Also, the movie is just as delightfully bats*it insane.
That said, I’m so glad I had this book at 12 because I don’t know who I would be without it.
Next week, to continue with May’s theme, we’re going to do V.C Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic. Until then: Sparkle, Neely, sparkle!
Header Image Source: Bernard Geis Associates