No books are quite so powerful as the ones that you know you’re not supposed to read. Mysteriously, Valley Of The Dolls was on a high shelf in our school library, albeit with a big red “SIXTH FORM ONLY” sticker obscuring half the spine. I’d heard of it somewhere, possibly in passing from an uncle with a deathlessly sharp appreciation of the camp and the kitsch, or maybe I’d seen a cover at the video shop. I had a misty idea that it had subversive women in it, and a clearer one that it was jam-packed with graphic sex scenes.
It took me a week to get that book off the shelf. I’d creep to the back, clutching a copy of Bleak House, just so I could claim I was looking for some entirely respectable Dickens if I got caught. Twice, I fell off a step stool, panicking because a twig had grazed the window or someone had coughed and turned a page. When I got what I wanted, I jammed it inside my safe book, and set up camp on the table furthest from the librarian's desk. (I’ve still never read Bleak House. I mean, it’s called Bleak House! What’s to like?!)
Then I was lost for ever. It was as if I was reading a drug – and not just because of the titular dolls, the barbiturates that the characters get hooked on in the course of managing their lives. I met Anne, brand-new to New York City and too beautiful to be a secretary – we learn that before the end of the second paragraph, when she goes to a temp agency and is advised to try modelling instead. I met performer Neely, 17, plump, terrifyingly talented and making it in Manhattan all by herself, even though she’s naive and CBeebies cheerful. I met Jennifer, the sex queen with sad secrets who longs to be loved for more than just her body. I watch them break up with millionaires, bawl out cheating lovers in swimming pools, overdose and orgasm, fail and triumph.
I think I’m currently on my seventh or eighth copy of Valley Of The Dolls, because I want everyone to love it like I do, and I keep giving my own books away. I read it every year and its effect on me has not lessened over time. It’s a four-shot frozen margarita of a book: shocking, thrilling and refreshing. I’m basic enough to try to empathise with every protagonist I read about and, when I read VOTD, I feel as sexy and powerful as its stars. And they are “stars” – “characters” doesn’t come close.
It has a motor that runs on pure fury. Susann is writing about the beautiful and brilliant coming up against adversity in a man-made world, using great genius and cunning to circumnavigate these difficulties
The book was published in 1966, making it 50 this year. It begins in 1945, when feminism was a frightening, academic concept that the heroines couldn’t name, and wouldn’t wish to associate themselves with. But, in spirit, it is one of the most feminist titles I have ever read. We’re barely out of the blocks before Anne has turned down two men – the first, a wealthy bore who wants to buy her beauty, and the second, the great love of her life who won’t love her on her terms.
Jennifer takes money and gifts from men, but she’s a hustler with a family to support. The people who define her life and the way she lives it are other women. When she meets tragedy, it’s because the men around her can’t cope with the fact that there is more to her than her considerable beauty, and refuse to acknowledge her intelligence. Neely is, at points, more sure of her own talent and worth than she’s sure of the colour of the grass around her Hollywood villa. Admittedly, she’s fragile and insecure, but she’s ruthless when she comes to pursuing her business interests, as much as she’s allowed to be. I think of her whenever I have to send a difficult email.
Thank you for joining The Pool
In her introduction to the 2003 Virago edition, Julie Burchill writes, “There is an indignance and real anger in Susann’s writing, a refusal to use irony or education as a wet blanket which might tastefully mute the lurid flames of her outrage.” It’s a deathlessly, distractingly sexy novel; it sizzles, smoulders and gallops along. The plot is as mad yet compelling as the most scandalous telenovela. But I agree with Burchill – it has a motor that runs on pure fury. Susann is writing about the beautiful and brilliant coming up against adversity in a man-made world, using great genius and cunning to circumnavigate these difficulties, even though they did not create them for themselves, and they still get held back. Lyon, Anne’s big love and the closest thing the novel has to a great romantic hero, is ultimately a weak and silly man. The hottest sex scene – and there are a few – occurs between two women. This book is the most radical 50-year-old I know.
I hope it’s still in my old school library, and part of me hopes that someone has the good sense to rip the sticker from it and circulate it amongst the Year 8s. That said, I suspect it will reach the audience that needs it most if it stays a little bit forbidden. If, like me, you’re revisiting the Dolls, celebrate the anniversary by doing all of the things you promised Grown-Up You when you first picked it up. I’m going to have confident, multi-orgasmic sex while sipping an icy martini and demanding to be paid more money.