Thursday, April 11, 2019

Book 176: Valley of the Dolls

"She stumbled out of bed and changed her pajamas. Dr. Mitchell was right—she was building up a tolerance to the pills. Maybe one more yellow...No, then she'd be groggy and hungover in the morning, and she had to learn those lyrics. Jesus. Today she had needed three green dolls just to get through the morning shooting. She poured a full glass of Scotch. Maybe one more red pill...yeah, they wore off faster. She swallowed it quickly. And she wouldn't drink all this Scotch, just sip at it until the pills worked."   

Dates read: September 9-15, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

Every once in a while, I realize I'm drinking just to drink. Having a drink after work just because. Or on the weekend, getting to the point where I have a happy little buzz going and then having another drink or two just because it's there. So I'll knock it off for a while, because the slope between substance use and substance abuse is slippery and I want to stay on the good side of it. Well, unless the substance is caffeine. I am 100% addicted to it and I am 100% okay with that.

As long as there have been drugs, there have been people who've gotten hooked on them. Right now, it's opioids that are the hot topic and big area of concern, but back in the day, it was barbiturates. In Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, there are two ways to take the title. In one sense, "dolls" has long referred to women, and the book tells the story of three of them. But throughout the novel, the characters refer to their pills as "dolls" as well. The book tells the story of three young women who are briefly roommates at the beginning of their careers: Anne, Neely, and Jennifer. Anne is a lovely, well-bred New Englander who flees her hometown because she's terrified of getting stuck in a passionless marriage and never accomplishing anything besides raising children. She goes to New York City, where she finds work in the office of a well-known entertainment lawyer/talent manager. Neely has been on the vaudeville circuit since she was a small child, and is trying to break into Broadway with a group act. When the dancers get cast in a show starring one of Anne's company's clients but Neely gets cut, Anne manages to score her a new spot. And Jennifer is a stunningly beautiful but not especially talented actress cast in the chorus.

The women's stories all take different directions from there: Anne breaks off a relationship with a rich man who wants to marry her to pursue a relationship with Lyon, her boss's protegee, a veteran who's returned from war but thinks he maybe wants to be a writer instead of getting back into the rat race. She's crazy about him, but he's proud and doesn't want to marry her unless he can support her even though she's well-off enough for both of them. When they break up, she goes on to date an older cosmetics executive and becomes a TV spokesmodel. Neely goes to Hollywood to make it in the movies, where she's put on uppers so she can handle long song-and-dance rehearsals while skipping meals to lose weight, and gets herself onto downers so she can sleep. She becomes a huge star and wins an Oscar, but also turns into an addict. And Jennifer, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, chases a marriage with a successful lounge singer to lock in a source of support for her and her family...only to discover her beloved isn't who she thinks he is and winds up making "art films" overseas. She finally finds real love and security with a politican, but she also finds a lump in her breast.

On the one hand, this is delightfully campy melodrama: Anne's terror of being "frigid" and desperate desire for Lyon, Lyon's refusal to be a "kept man", Neely's marriages and pill popping and downward spiral into addiction, Jennifer's secret white trash past and doomed marriage and soft-core porn career. Y'all, there is an actual scene in which a wig is snatched and flushed down the toilet. I found myself actually giggling out loud while reading it. But there's also a very real story there about how the entertainment industry chews women up and spits them out. Two of the three major characters are clearly based on real people: Neely's story has too many similarities to Judy Garland's to be mere coincidence, and Jennifer's is less clear but still obviously reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. All three women are scared of aging, terrified of losing their looks and therefore their value.

While Anne is the main character (the book begins and ends with "her" sections), perspective switches to Neely and Jennifer often enough to keep things interesting. The characters aren't necessarily super deep, but they are each flawed in their own way and so are at least well-rounded and generally sympathetic (although Neely takes a turn towards villainy near the end). There's definitely plenty of fluff, like I talked about above, but there's enough reality and pathos to balance it out so it doesn't feel like the book equivalent of a Twinkie. It's an entertaining, enjoyable read, and I'd recommend it...particularly to those interested in the entertainment industry and classic Broadway/Hollywood.  

One year ago, I was reading: The Color of Water

Two years ago, I was reading: Big Little Lies

Three years ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

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