Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.
We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.
But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.
At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.
I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1
If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.
TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.
- Though that will changing with ebooks. It’s still a prob for older books that have no digital files. [↩]
Off the top of my head, Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper, Evadne Price (writing as Helen Zenna Smith)’s Not So Quiet, Dorothy Canfeld Fisher’s The Squirrel Cage and The Home-Maker are worth a look. I know I have a ton more of 1910s thru 1940s books on my bookshelf at home that might fit your bill, but I’m about 500 miles from my home & bookshelves, so that’s all I have at the moment.
Meg, thanks so much for all those suggestions. At a quick glance it looks like availability’s going to be a real issue with most of those. We’re really hoping to do books that most people can access and preferably as ebooks. Will have to check the pre-1929 ones on Gutenberg Project.
I know the Dorothy Canfeld Fisher ones are free for e-readers. I have old physical copies for my library, but also got them for my e-reader. Not so sure about the others. Good luck finding some good books! This sounds like an awesome project.
Oh, cool. Which is your favourite? The Home Maker or The Squirrel Cage? I must admit I don’t know her work at all. Which is part of why we’re doing this.
Ack, sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I thought I marked to get e-mail notification of responses, but I guess I didn’t? I liked the Home-Maker better but my best friend (former women’s studies major who also loves these books) said she prefers The Squirrel Cage and The Bent Twig. I think you can’t go wrong with any of those three. I quite like Dorothy Canfeld Fisher.
A quick glance shows Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper is both in print in paperback as well as being available on e-reader. Not So Quiet is also available both in print in paperback and via e-reader. If you haven’t read it, it was originally commisioned as fiction for hire to be a humorous female version of All Quiet On the Western Front, but came out much darker and quite good. It’s one of my top ten favorite books of all time.
I will also put in a plug for Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, as it is my favorite of her books (and one of my all time top three favorite books). I pretty much re-read that and Not So Quiet at least once a year. It’s available in paperback in print and on e-readers, plus it was pretty mass produced when it was originally printed, so you can find used copies super cheap.
If you’re still looking for other authors/titles to consider, I’d like to throw in Barbara Comyns (I *adore* her stuff! The Vet’s Daughter is the main one I hear people talk about, but I love Sisters By a River best, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is also quite good, although I’d say I’ve liked everything I’ve read from her). I’d also suggest Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now Voyager (a good film but a better book…! It’s definitely in print and on e-reader as I just bought it for my e-reader last month. I’d also suggest her Stella Dallas, but it’s not on e-reader at present), anything by Rosamond Lehmann, Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontes Went to Woolworths, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Muriel Spark, E. H. Young (especially Miss Mole and Chatterton Square), Monica Dickens, Christina Stead, Winifred Holtby, Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed, and Antonia White.
I’d also like to second the recommendation to read Sigrid Unsdet’s Kristin Lavransdatter (and once you are done with reading that, the film adaptation directed by Liv Ullmann is quite good, too).
You are reading my adolescence! Valley of the Dolls, A Many Splendid Thing – waiting to see Anya Seton’s Katherine appear in the list:)
Psst. It’s definitely A Many Splendoured Thing. Your calling it “splendid” made me double check.
Never read any Anya Seton. Not heard of her. Was she a bestseller? So many books we could read!
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. The recent Penguin Classics translation is apparently quite good.
Now there’s a book I’ve heard a lot about over the years but never actually read. Thanks for the suggestion.
Gone With The Wind!
I know it’s ridiculously long, but it also represents one of the first real ‘zeitgeist’ bestsellers of the 20th century, a book that had massive brand recognition and popular appeal in its day (well before the movie which cemented its fame).
Like many bestselling novels by women, been derided as populist trash for nearly a century, and yet is beloved by millions.
I do find it fascinating that a book that is so insanely long (seriously, it puts Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to shame) has had such mass appeal for so long. And of course, she never wrote another one…
You’re gunna have to do that with somewhere else. Growing up GWTW was one of my favourite books. Read it many times. Then I re-read it in my 20s and was shocked to my core at how unceasingly and casually racist it was. Really made me sick. I wrote about that here. I really couldn’t bring myself to read it again.
I have no doubt, however, we’ll come across much casual racism during this project. Valley of the Dolls has casual homophobia on practically every page. And I’m trying to think if there was a single character of colour. I don’t think so.
I’d love to hear what you’d have to say about ‘The Thorn Birds’ by Colleen McCullough (1977). The book has so many fabulous hooks in it.
Shamelessly promoting my own interests here, but what about some nineteenth-century stuff Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood were wildly popular in the 1860s, as was Marie Corelli a few decades later. I’ve read Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan – cracking good stuff! – and would love a chance to read more.
Ideas: THE GROUP by Mary McCarthy, and/or PRECIOUS BANE by Mary Webb.
My crazy suggestion–which may not be to your taste/go with the other books so much, but what the heck–is some Judith Krantz. The ones I’d recommend are I’ll Take Manhattan, the Scruples trilogy, and maybe Dazzle–I especially respect the businesswomen and sensibility that she takes towards careers in her books. She has a sense of FUN where you wish you could work at or shop at or read the magazine of the characters, and she respects their sexuality.
I mean, sure, there’s a lot of ah, fun trash in there (hoo boy, I’ll Take Manhattan has an evil uncle and seriously also has the plot of Hamlet going on in the background except nobody is Hamlet, and Scruples and Dazzle involve Hollywood dating), but there’s also a surprising amount of depth too. Go figure.
I can’t think of anything that someone else hasn’t already suggested, but I’m in. I love this idea.
This is a fascinating project. You might want to include “Forever Amber” by Kathleen Winsor, which was a huge bestseller in the 40s and banned in Boston. It’s available as an ebook.
Valley Of The Dolls is my favourite book. The Love Machine by the same author is also good. Enjoyed Best Of Everything, Peyton Place & Return to Peyton Place as well. I don’t know what the scope of your reading is Edith Wharton & Anne Tyler are both excellent.
Wow. So many lovely thoughtful response. Many, many thanks. I’ve responded to some of your comments in the next post.
Hope to see some of you taking part in the discussion that kicks off Wednesday night US time and Thursday afternoon Australia time.