BWFBC: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Updated)

Welcome to our first Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club. We’re very excited to get the ball rolling with Susann’s Valley of the Doll.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #VofD #BWFBC. You can also leave a comment below. We love it when you leave comments.

If you haven’t read the book yet be warned there are many spoilers below.

Enough housekeeping here’s what we thought:

Kate Elliott (KE): So to begin, I have some initial impressions.

The pacing is just as fast as today. There is no messing around. Susann gets straight to the point.To that end it is very heavy on dialogue scenes.

I’m struck by the fascinating and obviously deliberate contrast between the absolute and immediate acceptance and attention Anne gets from men because of her stunning looks, and the interior life and intentions revealed by her pov. Her competence is assumed by the narrative because it is from her point of view, and I have to assume that the men who all admire and trust and respect her do so in large part because she has proven her level-headedness and competence.

I flinch at the casual use of the word fag, but I also note that no one so far in the text thinks twice about the presence of homosexual men in the entertainment industry. They’re there. Everyone knows it. In an odd way it is simply not a big deal (not yet, anyway).

JL: LOVE ANNE. Loving this book. Have so much to do but just want to read it. You are so right about the fast pace. Zooooom!

You’re right the homophobia is ridiculous. Tempted to keep a “fag” count. Barely a page goes by without it. Though as you say at least they’re not invisible. Why there are even lesbians in this book. Queen Victoria would faint.

I did find it very comfortable being in Anne’s pov for so long. The switch to Neely and Jennifer’s povs was quite a wrench. They’re much more uncomfortable places to be. Though once Anne was hopelessly in love with Lyon Burke, the biggest arsehole in the book, she became pretty uncomfortable too.

God, the men are awful. ALL OF THEM.

I’m a bit weirded out by the lack of scene breaks. I’m wondering if that’s an idiosyncracy of the book or something that wasn’t done as much back then or peculiar to the publisher or what? I don’t remember the last time I read a book where scenes changed with nothing more than a paragraph break. Odd.

KE: Yes. I keep waiting for a chapter or scene break and there is NOTHING. I have no idea why.

I sometimes think these “women’s novels” are about the deepest social commentary of all.

Because the men are all awful (so far). AWFUL. But I don’t find them “unrealistic.”

JL: No, they’re completely believable. Alas. Everything is so well observed. Painfully well observed. I feel like all the women are suffering from Stockholm syndrome except for Anne.

I finished. The subtitle of this book should be Patriarchy Destroys Everyone. :-(

KE: I’m also finished. It’s compulsively readable.

There were several points in the narrative where I started getting worn out with the endless pointlessness of it all and just wanted there to be sword fighting and dragons.

JL: Poor Anne. Don’t think dragons or swords would’ve helped. So glad I wasn’t born until after this book takes place.

It’s very interesting to me how very sympathetic Anne is. I suspect that the fact that she doesn’t just get by on her looks for a big chunk of the novel is a big part of that. As opposed to Jennifer.

All three women’s lives do, however, wind up being almost entirely governed by how they look. Anne becomes a model. Jennifer models and acts. Neely becomes a singing movie star ordered to lose weight by the studio. It does not work out well for any of them.

Fascinating, isn’t it that Neely’s happiest moments after she’s famous are when she’s out of rehab and has gained a lot of weight and everyone’s freaked out by it. But the minute she loses the weight again she’s back to being a monster.

Then there’s Jennifer’s face lift because at the ancient age of 37 or whatever it is she cannot possibly face Hollywood’s glare without one. One of a million depressing moments.

It’s really shocking to me how truly awful the men are. I kept wondering if they were meant to be awful or if were supposed to like some of them. There really is not a single good guy. And they’re all so desperately unhappy. Who in this book is happy for more than a nanosecond?

I love that the women are miserable no matter what choice they make. Get married, be supportive spouse, (Jennifer in Hollywood) = utter misery. Pursue career = utter misery. Pursue career with supportive husband = utter misery. Marry the guy of your dreams = utter misery. Whatever you choose = utter misery.

Where are the happy role models? Where are the happy relationships? The book basically says that in a misogynistic, homphobic, patriarchal world everyone is miserable.

The unhappy endings. Pulling this out of my arse but the books I read now that are labelled “women’s fiction” tend to have happy endings in a way these earlier books don’t. My sample size for this pronouncement is ludicriously small. And I’m probably wrong.

KE: No one in this book has an intact family of any kind or any sort of healthy familial relationships. As far as I can tell there are two healthy relationships shown in the book:

1) Anne’s friendship with Jennifer, and 2) Anne’s friendship with Henry Bellamy (which has issues but seems to be based on mutual respect).

I would add there is a suggestion that Neely’s second husband Ted apparently goes on to have a happy marriage to the girl he was sexing in the pool although that can’t be confirmed.

Not a single person has an intact relationship with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts & uncles, long-time friends, etc. They are all startlingly isolated and, to that degree, vulnerable.

JL: Right. They really are adrift. This is the world that the breakdown of the extended family and the rise of the broken nuclear family has led to. AND IT IS SO WRONG!

1) I’m not sure how healthy it is Anne and Jennifer’s friendship is. So much they don’t tell each other. But, yes, within the context of the book it’s not too bad. 2) And as for her relationship with Bellamy: but he lies to her! But, again, yes, compared to all the other relationships it’s not too bad. Henry Bellamy would be my nomination for most decent guy in the book and what a low bar that is.

Of all the awful men Anne’s husband, Lyon Burke, was the very worst. He’s who I’d stab.

I actually felt bad for Tony the mentally impaired singer. I liked his sister Miriam. Loved that he showed up at the sanitorium to sing with Neely. I’m a sook. That was one of my favourite bits.

Oh, also DRUGS ARE BAD. In fact, I’m never so much as looking at a drug ever again. Not even aspirin.

The ending left me really bummed. Poor Anne. May she discover feminism, quit the drugs, and leave the bastard soon.

I loved that it’s a book about work. As so many of these women’s fiction titles are. (Again small sample size. But it feels true.)

KE: I have a few other comments.

We both noticed the utter lack of people of color in the book (unless there is a mention of a maid or other servant that I flashed past because I was reading so fast). There are Catholics and Jews; other than that I guess it is presumed everyone is a white Protestant as the representation of the Standard Person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, and a lot of sexism—and constant measuring of women against regressive standards of weight, age, appearance, and so on (nothing new, and certainly standards that continue today, but it permeates the book so alarmingly and despairingly). The women engage in a lot of sex, often (mostly?) out of wedlock, and what I felt I did NOT see was reductive slut-shaming. It is assumed that women have sexual feelings, that they want to act on them, and that they (sometimes) take pleasure from sex. There are ways in which that may be undercut but I bet I could find many a more recent novel and novels published today that are much more “conservative” about women’s sexual activity than this book is. I wonder if that is one of the reasons it was so popular.

Finally I wanted to mention what might have been my favorite exchange in the book. I do agree that Anne and Jennifer’s relationship is not a full friendship in that they keep things from each other. I read VotD when I was 14, secretly, at might grandmother’s house, and while there is much in the novel that I recall, I have no memory of the episode about Jennifer’s relationship with Maria, the Spanish woman. While Maria herself is a controlling and abusive person, and while an argument can (should) be made that the book is hostile to lesbians with lines like “those awful freaks who cut their hair and wear mannish clothes,” (unless that is merely meant to reflect Maria’s hostile personality), for me the most heartfelt and sweet exchange in the book is between Jennifer and Anne:

“I love you, Jen—really.”

Jennifer smiled. “I know you do. It’s a pity we’re not queer—we’d make a marvelous team.”

Is the exchange then undercut by their agreement that there can never be equality in love? Or is this the one moment where Susann is suggesting that there can be but they just don’t see it because of their awful experiences in their various love affairs and their fractured social interactions? I don’t know.

What a downer of an ending, though, and yet entirely appropriate. Which is maybe why I always go back to reading about swords and dragons.

JL: Yes, to everything you just said. The world of The Valley of the Dolls is a white, white, white world.

That was a lovely exchange. I like to think that it’s not undercut by anything. But then the whole book undercuts it, doesn’t it? They none of them end well.

It reminded me that there were many lovely moments between the three women before Neely became famous and deranged. The first third of the book when they’re becoming friends is very touching.

Then there’s Neely, oh, Neely. It’s very hard not to think of her as Judy Garland. And knowing that the book is a roman a clef and that Jennifer North was based on Carole Landis who killed herself aged 29, that Helen Lawson was a thinly disguised Ethel Merman, makes me even sadder about the book because I can’t pretend it’s all fiction. Alas. According to Wikipedia Susann was “quoted in her biography Lovely Me saying that she got the idea for [Tony] Polar when she tried to interview Dean Martin after one of his shows; he was too engrossed in a comic book to pay attention to her.” As someone who quite likes comic books that strikes me as more than a little unfair, Ms Susann. Makes me want to read the bio though and re-watch the Bette Midler flick based on it.

I think the book was tremendously popular because, as we both found, it’s unputdownable, because it was a roman a clef, and because it was, as you say frank about sex and female sexual desire, also sometimes it’s hilarious. So let me finish with one of my favourite passages:

“Anne I think you’re afraid of sex.”

This time she looked at him. “I suppose you’re going to tell me that I’m unawakened…that you will change all that.”

“Exactly.”

She sipped the champagne to avoid his eyes.

“I suppose you’ve been told this before,” he said.

“No, I’ve heard it in some very bad movies.”

Hahahaha! Take that, loser. I can almost see Anne rolling her eyes.

——-

So, that’s some of mine and Kate’s thoughts. (Trust me. We have many more.) What did you all think of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls?

Our April book will be Rona Jaffe’s Best of Everything which we’ll be discussing over on Kate’s blog. We will announce what date and time as soon as we figure it out.

15 comments

  1. Jackie on #

    I’m totally not finished yet (wah!) but I also love Anne. I also feel sorry for her. She’s obviously smart and knows what she wants and the world is just not ready for her. I’m not sure if it ever is.

  2. Kate Elliott on #

    It is really so striking how clear Anne is about what she wants at the beginning–not the myths of “true love” or the “nurturing caretaker” or the “mother in the kitchen” or “society housewife” or any of the things society tells her is fitting for a woman. And yet the world beats her down and beats her down because it will not let her have it.

    Also the unpleasant arrival of that Awful Man who ruins her life.

  3. Justine on #

    Jackie: The world is just not ready for her. I’m not sure if it ever is.

    Bingo. I feel like this is a book about women for whom the world is not ready. Or, rather, that at that time and place the world wasn’t ready for any woman who aspired to more than wifedom and children. And even those that did—in this novel—found no happiness there.

  4. Kate Elliott on #

    I read this book so differently NOW than I did at 14. Now I see it as a statement in a way I didn’t perceive then.

    • Justine on #

      I’d love to hear about how you read it then, Kate.

      • Kate Elliott on #

        I only have vague memories.

        1) It was a book that wasn’t at my parents’ house, not because they found it offensive but probably because they thought it was trashy and thus uninteresting. So I sneak-read it at my grandmother’s house, never told anyone.

        2) I was FASCINATED by the discussions of drugs, of breasts, of women being sexual — all right out there on the page! And much of which I didn’t actually fully understand.

        3) I was crushed by Jennifer’s death.

        4) Surely the toxic stew of the culture of the time, as represented in the book, permeated my life as a girl growing up in that, knowing that these were what people thought. Just the sheer regimentation of women’s looks….kind of crushing. It’s really no wonder I preferred reading SFF.

        • Kate Elliott on #

          I wonder now if I identified most with Jennifer at the time because Anne felt too self-possessed to be me, and like Jennifer I felt I was being judged on things that were fundamentally out of my control.

          As a teen I feel I most often read to understand the world and to negotiate an identity that made sense to me?

          • Justine on #

            I think you just summed up being a teenager: “being judged on things that were fundamentally out of my control.”

            • Kate Elliott on #

              True.

        • Justine on #

          Fascinating. Thank you.

          I think the fact that I’ve always preferred fantasy, and books set in very different worlds from my own, is part of why I’m finding this project so fascinating. In a weird way this realism set so many years ago winds up feeling like a visit to an alien culture.

          • Kate Elliott on #

            Yes, me too. I read mostly SFF as a teen, and then in college I graduated to SFF, classics, and non fiction. With occasional excursions into the “modern novel” in whatever form.

  5. Katharine Kerr on #

    Another strand: People worshipped Hollywood and the movies and nightclub entertainers even more then than they do now. A lot of my girlfriends in high school desperately wanted to be “stars”, to be part of Hollywood and the glamour. Interestingly, they wanted to act; acting had more prestige than modelling. These days models are seen as the more prestigious job, even though they mostly starve, stand still, and do as they’re told. Susann saw herself as a debunker in a way. I vaguely remember interviews with her stating that Hollywood ate women alive — metaphorically, of course. Judy Garland is definitely evidence for this.

    Since my mother was so into diet pills the book made me profoundly uncomfortable when I read it. Details have escaped me after so many years, but that feeling of “oh my god, pills!” has remained.

    • Kate Elliott on #

      “that Hollywood ate women alive” — very true, and she really makes clear how much it does. I think she does a good job of playing off a desire to adulate that world against uncovering how awful it is (especially to women).

  6. Susan Loyal on #

    I’d seen the movie but never read the book, because I thought the movie was terrible and imagined the book would be too. Imagine my surprise. I keep being struck by how much it reminds me of “Sense and Sensibility” (the book, not any of the movies), especially the extensive cast of endlessly and variously useless men. (I’m only about halfway through the book.)

    The movie omits the character of Allen Cooper, so I’ve been especially struck by how much the early part of the narrative is shaped by everyone’s refusal to believe that Anne can choose not to marry a millionaire. It’s a disquisition on how very little the word “no” can mean.

    (Back to the book. More later.)

    • Kate Elliott on #

      That’s a really good point about the Allen Cooper subplot. Everyone really will not take no. It reminds me of the old adage that a woman will say no repeatedly when she really means yes, which is one of the creepiest adages ever. Also a testament to Anne’s strength of will that she does not give in and marry him.

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