The Ur-text For All Chick-Lit Everywhere
So, after previously apologising for using the word “trash” in the context of some of the great books I’ve had the chance to review, let me first say this; “Valley of the Dolls” is trash. “Valley” is uber-trash: the novel that defines the very concept of trash, the first – and surely the greatest – contribution to that ultimate in trashy, disposable literature, the giant-sized Bonkbuster.
I first came across “Valley” as a falling-apart paperback in a charity-shop. When that one finally crumbled into its constituent parts of cheap paper and worn cardboard, I went out to another charity shop, and instantly found another copy. Since it’s sold north of thirty million since it was published, this probably isn’t too surprising. But when my fourth copy fell to pieces and I decided it was time to upgrade to an edition that would withstand repeated re-reading, I thought I’d have a look on Amazon – where, to my surprise, it turned out to have been re-issued as a Virago Modern Classic. For the record, this puts Susann’s debut novel on the same list as Angela Carter, Marilyn French and Nora Ephron. Just saying.
The plot, like all bonkbusters, is twisty and complicated, but the basics are these. In 1945, three women – Anne Welles, Jennifer North and Neely O’Hara – arrive in New York. Anne is a classically beautiful New Englander, fleeing a privileged and buttoned-up existence back home. Jennifer has a sex-bomb good looks, a show-stopping figure and a poverty-stricken family to support. Neely is one third of a ropey cod-Mexican act playing seedy clubs and trying to break into the big-time. They are brought together by a new Broadway show “Hit the Sky”, a showcase written for aging Broadway Queen Helen Lawson, and masterminded by her agent Henry Bellamy. Anne gets a job as Henry Bellamy’s secretary, Jennifer is added to the cast as a beautiful but talentless piece of animated scenery, and Neely lands the spot of understudy to the second female lead. From this springboard, each of them launches a stratospheric career in Showbiz. Over the next twenty years, they achieve everything they ever wanted. And then, just as they’re closing in on the classic happy, Trashy ending…it all starts to go wrong.
Anne’s story begins when she turns down marriage to a millionaire to embark on a brief, blissful but doomed romance with Lyon Burke – the tall, dark and handsome Heir Apparent to Henry Bellamy’s empire. We can all see Leon’s a player and a bastard, but Anne is wild for him, because he’s literally the only man she’s ever laid eyes on who she wants to have sex with. After Anne accidentally talks him into trying to be a writer, Leon disappears to some unspecified place in the North of England (a place where the sun never shines! And where Leon will live in a few rooms of a large family mansion! Which has no central heating! The horror!!!) for the next fifteen years. A heartbroken Anne becomes the face of Gillian Cosmetics, and the long-term girlfriend of the crumbly owner Kevin Gilmore. Just as Anne’s on the verge of marrying an impotent, post-heart-attack Kevin (why? WHY? Surely there must have been other choices…?), Leon comes back to New York and rekindles their romance. They marry, Leon takes over Henry’s business, Anne has a baby, it’s all simply marvellous…and then Leon starts sleeping around, and Anne turns to sleeping-pills to cope with the pain.
In parallel, Neely’s career goes stellar before her eighteenth birthday, and she’s soon under contract to a major Hollywood Studio. The studio decide she needs to slim and provide the amphetamines to make this happen, plus the sleeping pills to help her sleep. By the time she turns twenty, Neely’s on the treadmill of uppers, downers, back-to-back projects and yo-yo diets. She burns through two marriages and is dropped from her contract; but after a traumatic trip to rehab, Leon relaunches her career to huge critical acclaim. Neely has the world at her feet, and is finally in control of her life and her talent…and then she starts an affair with Leon, starts taking drugs again, and is last seen clearly heading for another almighty crash.
Jennifer is twenty-four at the start of the novel, but pretending to be nineteen through the brilliant expedient of not mentioning her five-year relationship with Maria, a girl from her exclusive Swiss finishing school who she has handily left behind in Europe. She’s desperate to cash in on her physical assets so she can save her parasitic mother from poverty. First, she marries the singer Tony Polar and falls pregnant with his child. When Tony turns out to be mentally disabled with some unspecified hereditary and degenerative condition (Susann is characteristically vague on the details), Jennifer divorces him, aborts his baby and makes a fortune in European art-house movies by baring her magnificent breasts. (Incidentally, I’m really quite taken with Susann’s vision of Europe. Apparently we have plenty of lesbians, rude films, drugs, snow and finishing schools, but no sunshine, central heating or decent-sized flats. So, that’s nice). Jennifer is the sex goddess of the arthouses, but all she wants is marriage and babies; and it looks as if she’s about to get her wish when, just before her fortieth birthday, she falls in love with US Senator Winston Adams. Two weeks before their wedding, she discovers she has breast-cancer. She’s devastated, but ready to accept life post-mastectomy…then, Winston (who, to be fair, doesn’t yet know about her diagnosis. Nonetheless, he’s still a knob) accidentally reveals that he’s completely obsessed with her magnificent tits and wouldn’t want to be with her if she didn’t have them. A heartbroken Jennifer duly takes a lethal overdose of barbiturates.
At the time, most people were fascinated by “Valley” because of its tantalising air of roman a clef. Helen Lawson is really Ethel Merman! Tony Polar is Dean Martin! Neely O’Hara is Judy Garland! The Head is Louis Meyer! Jennifer North is Carole Landis, or maybe Lana Turner, or even an out-of-time Jean Harlow…hell, one of those Hollywood blondes, anyway! Henry Bellamy is Jacqui’s husband Irving Walsh!
Because Jacqui lived most of her adult life on the margins of showbiz, there was a sense that “Valley” was somehow an insider’s tale. There’s no doubt this is part of the fun, even now. But I think what makes Valley a stand-out in its genre is the unrelenting bleakness of its story. Susann follows each of her heroines to what looks like a happy ending. Anne marries the man she’s been hung up on for nearly twenty years; Jennifer finds a man who seems to love her for herself, not for her body; Neely’s career is hitting new heights and she finally seems at peace with her demons. Most trash novels stop exactly here. But Susann, with terrible inexorability, takes it all away again. It’s trash, Jim. But not as we know it.
The sheer unrelenting rage of this book is really something to behold. Susann’s analysis of pre-Feminist America is far from intellectual, but it makes up for that with its utter ferocity. A woman’s life, as Susann sees it, is inevitably shit. If you’re born beautiful, you’ll be valued only as long as you stay looking young, which is shit. If you’re born talented, you’ll end up exploited, which is shit. Being beautiful and talented is doubly shit. Marriage? Either your husband will be boring and having sex with him will make your skin crawl, or he’ll be a player who sleeps around; so sorry, but that’s also going to be shit. Concentrating on your career? You’ll end up alone, which is shit. Being ugly and / or talentless? Also shit. Lesbianism? Shit. Celibacy? Shit. Whatever cards life deals you, however hard you try to escape, whichever way you turn, your life is going to be shit. And then you’ll die. Probably from an overdose.
It’s fair to say there’s quite a lot wrong with this book. It’s equally fair to say that I am not the first person to notice. Critics have been pointing out examples of clunky dialogue (entire pages of poorly-constructed expositional speech, poured out nore or less unprompted to whoever needs to know), clumsy description (New York personified as an “angry concrete animal” was particularly reviled at the time), implausible events (Jen marrying Tony Polar without realising he has a severe mental disability? SRSLY?) and dubious “shocker” moments (although I do quite like that Susann managed to sneak in the world’s first mainstream anal sex scene without her editors realising until it was far, far too late). In the summer of sixty-six, Susann-bashing was something of a national sport. Her rather magnificent response was to lampoon her enemies in her next two books, “The Love Machine” and “Once Is Not Enough”, and then get on and enjoy spending her royalties.
In its time, “Valley” was considered shocking – certainly shocking enough to be banned from a number of libraries, and to be ostentatiously Not Sold in bible-belt bookshops. Although these days you can probably read more about sex and drugs in a teenage magazine, there’s still a sense of shame attached to this book. Reviewers consistently describe it as a “guilty pleasure” – as if admitting to liking Susann’s novels is something to be embarrassed about. However, I’m hoping that its appearance on Virago’s list is a sign that it’s in the process of rehabilitation.
It’s about time we stopped being ashamed of wildly successful female writers. Susann entertained a generation on a scale that had literally never been seen before. It’s not exaggerating to say that she changed the face of modern publishing. And frankly, that’s a record any writer should rightfully be proud of. “Valley” isn’t great literature; but so what? What is so shameful about entertaining people, anyway? Buy this book, I say! Buy it and read it, in public and without apology. You won’t regret it.
“Valley of the Dolls” is available from Amazon for £6.49. Alternatively, thirty million copies says it’s almost certainly available from your local charity shop, for a price ranging between 30p and £1. If you do get an old copy, could you do me a favour and check out whether Helen Lawson describes Terry King as “fucked-out” or beat-up”? The original version was clearly expurgated and I’m trying to work out when. Thank you in advance.