Review: ‘Valley of the Dolls’ by Jacqueline Susann

As soon as I finished this book, I knew I needed to write a review of ‘Valley of the Dolls’ by Jacqueline Susann, as it was so moving, relevant, and shocking.

A very popular book in its time, this novel focuses on the experiences of famous starlets in the 1940s and 1950s. Set in New York and Hollywood, this is a story of glamour and beauty on the outside, and drugs and abuse on the inside. I really enjoyed this book, so I’ve been looking forward to sharing all my thoughts on it!

The three women from 'Valley of the Dolls' pose for the camera.
Picture credits here

This book focuses on three women in their search for a new life. The book starts from Anne’s point of view. She is desperate to escape small town life, getting a new job as a secretary for an agent in New York. All she wants is to build a life away from her family town and away from a loveless marriage.

Not long after arrival in New York, Anne meets Allen Cooper- he’s rich and famous in New York. But Anne doesn’t know who he is, and she is soon swept up in a world of parties and outings, finding herself engaged to Allen despite her loud protests.

“My identity, maybe my future, my whole life. Giving up before it begins… nothing ever happened to anyone in my family. They married, had children, and that was it. I want things to happen to me.”

Anne is beautiful and straight-talking, but even she is brought into the world of fame and fortune as a television actress. I was really sympathetic about Anne’s story, as she just wanted to escape small-town life and she never had the intention to become famous. She holds on longer than the other women, but just like them she ends up in the Valley of the Dolls.

‘Valley of the Dolls’ also focuses on the story of Jennifer North, a typical rising star who is hiding her true identity and age. When the book starts, she is 25 years old but pretending she’s 19, and she constantly takes part in ritualistic beauty routines and exercises to convince people she is younger than she is.

Jennifer is known for her amazing body. Her struggles reflect women’s attempts to stay young. Men constantly take advantage of her, and she is used and abused for her beautiful body. I found her story incredibly sad, particularly as it drew to a close. Throughout the book she never manages to maintain a happy, healthy lifestyle. In fact, she is the first to start popping pills (or “dolls”, as the women call them).

“I don’t think she’s much of an actress, but she has one hell of a face and body. I hope she makes it pay off. Because that’s all she’s got, and when that goes… that’ll be the end of Jennifer.”

The final viewpoint focuses on Neely O’Hara. Neely comes from nothing, and she is best friends with Anne when she first moves to the city. After getting a big break at a young age, she is catapulted into fame and stardom. She moves to Hollywood, acting in pictures and slowly losing touch with reality.

For someone like Neely, this glamorous world is so tempting. But this fame soon starts to affect her mental health. She is sad and tortured, used by picture companies and tossed aside in her late twenties as “too fat” and no longer with it.

At first, I felt sympathetic for Neely- ruined by fame and the exploitation of male producers. But towards the end, she forgets all her morals. For me, it was hard for me to feel sympathetic towards her after that.

This book is sad, touching, and truthful. Susann chooses to comment on society at the time, using these three women to represent attitudes towards women in the limelight during this period. While these women have different stories to tell, they are all tortured and used, particularly by men.

Susann comments on images of women as valuable only when they are young and beautiful, and the way in which picture companies used women for all they could get- and then discarded them.

“This is a man’s world- women only own it when they’re young.”

‘Valley of the Dolls’ also shows the importance of not trusting outward appearances. During the book, all three women are living supposedly brilliant lives- Neely has a huge house out in Hollywood. Jennifer stars in Parisian movies, showcasing her beautiful body. And Anne achieves fame through television adverts.

But on the inside, these women are unhappy and broken, and they increasingly turn to drugs, alcohol, and bad habits in order to survive. Despite the best intentions of these three characters to stay true to themselves, all three of them end up in the ‘Valley of the Dolls’, tormented and popping pills.

One of the women from 'Valley of the Dolls' stares at herself in the mirror and pours pills into her hand.
Picture credits here

I really liked this book, and it was very popular when it was first released. Unlike other books, it represents a true version of what Hollywood starlets went through, and while the women may be fictional, their characters are based on women such as Judy Garland.

I liked the use of direct narration in this book, as it was easy to sympathise with each of the women as they experienced their own journey to stardom. I also thought it worked well to use switching perspectives, as it allowed the reader to understand differences and similarities in their experiences. I always like books that switch perspective!

While this book is an important commentary on society at the time, it is also a very sad novel. Many horrible things happen to these women throughout the book, and it was heartbreaking to read as they went from fresh-faced young girls to tortured, depressed young women.

Did you enjoy my review of ‘Valley of the Dolls’? Do you enjoy modern classics? Do you fancy giving this one a try?

Let me know all your thoughts in the comments below

Happy reading x

Picture credits here

35 thoughts

  1. This isn’t usually the type of book I read, but I’ve always been interested in Old Hollywood lifestyle and celebrities. I like that this book takes a more grounded approach to the whole thing. Great review! I might have to look into borrowing this one from the library.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Without giving my age away, I was 18:when I first read it. 🤭Given my own life experiences since then,(not nearly as dramatic as those women) it would be interesting to reread it now.

    Liked by 1 person

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