At 50, these dolls still de­liver

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - PA­TRI­CIA DAWN ROBERT­SON

Val­ley of the Dolls, 50th An­niver­sary Edi­tion, by Jacque­line Su­sann, Grove Press, 496 pages, $23.50.

Be­fore Sex and the City, there was Val­ley of the Dolls. This en­dur­ing pulp fic­tion ac­count of fe­male am­bi­tion, greed and sex­ual ap­petite is set in New York and Hol­ly­wood’s entertainment sec­tor from the 1940s to the 1960s.

It’s Fifty Shades of Grey with pill pop­pers.

When Jacque­line Su­sann first pub­lished it in 1966, Val­ley of the Dolls was con­sid­ered a dirty book, a scan­dal. And, for women, that was all the more rea­son to read it.

Its break­out pop­u­lar­ity — more than 31 mil­lion copies sold — made the au­thor rich and fa­mous ... just like her char­ac­ters. Grove Press has just re­leased a 50th-an­niver­sary edi­tion of this no­to­ri­ous book.

This is vin­tage beach read­ing for lovers of Chick­Lit. Its lurid sub­ject mat­ter and well-drawn char­ac­ters still hold their ap­peal in today’s celebrity-ob­sessed cul­ture.

My in­tro­duc­tion to scan­dalous pa­per­backs was the 1973 pros­ti­tute mem­oir The Happy Hooker, which I pil­fered from my fa­ther’s book­shelf.

Val­ley of the Dolls is in that same vein: a rib­ald in­struc­tion man­ual suit­able for com­ing-of-age or nav­i­gat­ing that dreary mid-life cri­sis.

The “dolls” of the ti­tle are Se­conal pills (a.k.a. Lit­tle Red Dolls). Jen­nifer, a hack ac­tress, uses them for her chronic insomnia.

When Jen­nifer ven­tures from New York to Hol­ly­wood with Tony, her new hus­band, she’s un­happy. “In fact,” Jen­nifer ob­serves, “a wife held the same so­cial sta­tus as a screen­writer — nec­es­sary but anony­mous.”

The per­ils of the other two central char­ac­ters, Anne and Neely, are told in con­cert with their friend, Jen­nifer. The three women meet in New York in the pro­fes­sional cir­cle of Broad­way le­gend He­len Lawson.

Never doubt the power of pulp fic­tion to re­flect so­ci­ety back to it­self.

Val­ley of the Dolls gave voice to women’s col­lec­tive dis­sat­is­fac­tion in post­war Amer­ica.

Its fic­tional hero­ines lived out the mix­ture of pub­lic am­bi­tion and pri­vate de­spair por­trayed in Betty Friedan’s non-fic­tion opus, The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique.

Read Val­ley of the Dolls and relive a crit­i­cal junc­ture in women’s so­cial his­tory .

No won­der it flew off the shelves. It touched a nerve and women’s lives were never the same once the sec­ond wave of fem­i­nism kicked into gear.

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