Recap: The scandalous, spiraling-out-of-control lives of three up-and-coming women in New York merge in this 1960’s tale of fame and self-destruction. Anne Welles has just moved to New York in an attempt to escape her small-town life and find love and happiness. Jennifer North has worked her way through Europe and landed in New York looking for nothing but love. Neely O’Hara doesn’t care much for love, but cares every bit about fame, success and her singing and acting career.
The three meet at similar times in their lives. Anne meets a man who finally makes her feel something. Jennifer is working steadily and meeting men here and there. Neely is a young star on the rise. Anne works for an agent and stays involved in the entertainment business of Broadway, movies and eventually television as the other girls continue to focus on performing. After the only man she’s ever loved leaves her, Anne becomes the new commercial face of a makeup campaign, while Jennifer moves to Paris, shooting risque films and Neely becomes a huge, but unreliable and diva-like star.
As the lives of the three women start to spiral out of control, they all turn to pills: sleeping pills, weight-loss pills, any kind of pill to make them feel and look the way they’re pressured to feel and look. The pills — or “dolls” as the girls call them — lead to illness, rehab, depression and anxiety. It’s an ongoing struggle for the girls that doesn’t end even when the novel does.
Analysis: In the beginning, I couldn’t put this book down. Going back and forth between the three girls and trying to determine their character arch was exciting. It felt like an adventure. In the middle section when Jennifer and Neely start their addictions, I started rooting for them to overcome it all. They were the “underdogs” in a book full of sadness. I hoped the best for them as Anne’s love life continued to sour. But the last part of the book was a hard slog. None of the girls overcame anything. In fact, they just repeated their awful cycles or gave up entirely. There was no one and nothing to root for anymore. Their lives were a depressing pile of resentment and loss.
Knowing that Valley of the Dolls was such a huge hit when it came out in 1966 — it was the biggest-selling novel of the year! — I had high expectations. I understand why it was a hit. It was that perfect “trashy” novel and a great summer read if you’re into that kind of thing. But reading it fifty years left made it clear that it was dated and didn’t quite hold up.
MVP: Anne. She’s the least lost soul of the three. Although she became jaded at the end of the novel, she certainly held out the longest and worked the hardest. It seems she just surrounded herself with bad people.