(Note: We haven’t given up on this blog! We promise. Tim is just extremely busy with awards season– check out his live tweets of the Oscars @mxdwnmovies on Twitter. He’ll get back to the books after the South by Southwest film festival in March.)
“The Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann has been lingering on my bookshelf for some time. I picked up the faded pink novel at a used bookstore out of amusement. The cover featured three, big-eyed, poofy-haired models, lounging behind cutouts of giant pills. It was cheesy and irresistible.
I was heading out of town for the weekend and needed a book to read. I wanted something casual; a book that was engaging in that mindless, lose-yourself-in-someone-else’s-problems type of way. I cracked open the spine of “Valley of the Dolls” ready for an experience.
What I received was so much more. This book, while sprinkled with words like “Geez” and “C’mon”, is so incredibly relevant. The plot follows the lives of three young women, aspiring for greatness in a world ruled by men. The narrative begins in the mid-1940s in New York City. Anne moves there to get away from her boring little hometown of Lawrenceville. Neely is an aspiring actress with loads of talent, but is rather rough around the edges. Jen is stunning and banks on everyone else recognizing that fact. While each of the characters is unique, there is also something immediate and distinctly recognizable about all the girls. If I were to rewrite the book today, Anne would be recast as Heidi Klum– a beautiful model, who is respected for both her body and her smarts (even her seemingly perfect previous relationship to Seal is eerily similar to Anne’s love life). Neely would, no doubt, be renamed Lindsey Lohan: the young cinema darling turned nasty during her later years. Neely’s downward spiral into drugs and despair mirror Lohan’s own troubles. And lastly, we have Jennifer, the buxom brunette who overcomes her lack of talent with, well, her boobs. I can think of a dozen Hollywood actresses that fit the bill, but Kate Upton comes most readily to mind.
Okay so this is a fun game, but the reality of the situation is this: things have not changed all that much for ambitious women. We still live in a man’s world in which we play by their rules. I was reminded of this during last night’s Oscar ceremony when Patricia Arquette made a stirring call for wage equality and Meryl Streep responded like this:
While the “Valley of the Dolls” is known for its main theme of drug addiction, I found that topic to be a sideline to its discussion of love, relationships, and self-worth. From the first chapter of the book, it is assumed that all a woman really wants in life is to find a rich husband and make babies. No matter her personal desires or ambitions, it is understood that a woman’s value comes from her marriage and the offspring she produces. While each of the main characters interact with men differently (Anne wants love, Jen wants money, Neely was attention), they all end up making huge sacrifices for men. Anne wants love so much that she is willing to turn a blind eye to all the things that are desperately wrong with the man she is with. Jen literally gives everything she has to avoid tarnishing her beauty in the eyes of her fiance. And Neely is forced to put a healthy, trusting relationship on the pyre as others shove her up the celebrity ladder. It is devastating to see where these girls end up. Nobody escapes from the power and vices of money and fame.
The meaning of the word “dolls” is twofold. Dolls are literally pills that give the women power over sleep and weight. The uppers and downers allow each of them to feel more in control of their messy lives. At the same time, the dolls push them to be more out-of-control than ever before. The alternative meaning implies that these women are dolls: toys to be played with and discarded as necessary.
I feel rather dismal after writing this brief essay. To be honest, I found the book riveting rather than burdening. There is life and vibrancy in the work and art that each of the women contribute to society. The parties and friendships, the smart banter and descriptions of life back then are all captivating in their own way. I felt transported back to a time that felt like a foggy version of my own world. I would highly recommend this novel to anyone and everyone– both as a beach read and as a thoughtful piece of literature. You will feel something, and you can choose whether or not to think about that something on a deeper, more meaningful level. This final passage from the book sums it up nicely:
“She brushed her hair and freshened her makeup. She looked fine. She had Lyon, the beautiful apartment, the beautiful child, the nice career of her own, New York– everything she had ever wanted. And from now on, she could never be hurt badly. She could always keep busy during the day, and at night– the lonely ones– there were always the beautiful dolls for company. She’d take two of them tonight. Why not? After all, it was New Year’s Eve!