Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Valley of the Dolls

I first picked up 'Valley of the Dolls' in a bookshop when I was about 6 attracted by the cover, and was promptly told to put it down. Checking when it was written this morning I realise it had already been around for 15 years by that time. Since then it’s a book I’ve been vaguely aware of, and associated with all things trashy. I don’t think I was alone in being slightly surprised that Virago had chosen to reprint it, but I notice it has run into several editions for them.

Having moved through dismissive I picked it up several times without buying before Virago published it again as one of their anniversary hardbacks after which I was firmly intrigued so when I found a second hand copy it had to be. When I mentioned it in my reading group reaction was almost universally negative, and this intrigued me more. What is it that makes a classic?

I enjoyed ‘Valley of the Dolls’, despite the quality of the writing, plotting, and characterisation, and also perhaps because of those same deficiencies – it was such an easy read, and okay, more than a little bit trashy, but that only made it more irresistible. The sex seems tame by 2009 standards which is a definite bonus when I consider what’s alluded to and then glossed over, and in some ways the drug taking seems tame too when held up against contemporary tabloid excess, but at the same time the whole thing seems very current. I feel like I should be saying it’s second rate, and yet somehow I can’t.

The hook for me is that it feels true. The relationships between the women, attitudes towards sex, physical attraction, fame, youth, the price of success, marriage treated as a financial safety net, I recognise all of it. All the disappointments, compromises, pain and desperation in these women’s lives is depressingly familiar, in our celebrity obsessed society this book reads as entirely relevant. I suppose the details might feel more commonplace after 40 odd years but the implicit criticisms of how women are treated, and treat each other have remained desperately powerful.

I read this book about the same time as ‘The Women’s Room’ and ‘Peyton Place’. Of the three of them it’s probably going to be ‘Valley of the Dolls’ which sticks with me, the one that notwithstanding its faults felt like it had most to say about how we live now. I do wonder how it will read in 40 years time; if it will still have a claim to being a classic? I think it might, which goes to show how hard it is to pick what will last and what won’t. I don’t imagine that back in 1966 it seemed likely that it would last in the way it has, the blockbusters that followed from the likes of Danielle Steel or Jackie Collins certainly show no sign of having the same longevity.


  1. I really enjoyed Valley of the Dolls and I think it was for the reason you mention: the truth and possibility of it engaged and captivated me. I bought the Virago hardback edition through intrigue of its trashy reputation and yet apparent popularity within my favourite imprint; it was all the endorsement I required.

    Picking it up as a child amuses me; I imagine my six year old self would have been attracted to the title.

  2. I remember picking this up a number of years ago and abandoning it after a few pages. I've since lost my copy. I really want to try it again. Like so many books, it probably just needs to be read at the right time.

    Thanks for dropping by my blog. How did your cookies go?

    Nice blog by the way. We seem to like a lot of the same books.