The basic rundown: While a combination of eyebrow-raising sex and drug scenes, and a catty tone propelled Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls from Fifty Shades of Grey of it’s day to pop culture phenomenon (movies, sequels, musicals, etc.), it is, at its core, a book about three women involved in show business who start out decent, beautiful and promising, and end up with ruined lives thanks to bad choices involving men, work and pills (a.k.a. dolls). It would have an afterschool special quality to it — “take drugs and you’ll end up killing yourself when your financé tells you he only loves you for your boobs!” — if it weren’t so campy and ridiculous. After all, the book starts with a short poem about the climbing Everest and looking down on “the Valley of the Dolls.” It’s equal parts baffling and hilarious.
What made it beach-worthy back then: What was once probably a staggering bit of dialogue from the book about oral sex (“It feels sensational!”) seems Pixar-worthy compared to almost anything currently on Comedy Central right now — and I say this as someone who watched an episode of Amy Schumer’s new sketch show with her mother! (I don’t recommend it.) Still, there are plenty of now-chaste-seeming sex scenes, as well as drug use, which the characters indulge in to help them sleep, lose weight and generally cope with their messy lives. It’s not just soapy, but kitschy, with phrases like “a real hunk of a man” and a suicide scene that your average soap opera would find too campy.
Still beach-worthy now?
Like so many older scandalous books, the shock-factor of Valley of the Dolls is long gone. The popularity of Susann’s book wasn’t based totally on its salaciousness or timeliness, however, but on her ability to tell a story well. She’s not exactly a whiz with dialogue or description, but she does know how to set a fast pace and pull in the reader. She’s also got a cattiness to her writing that makes reading Valley of the Dolls a lot like having a conversation with a really bitchy, stereotypical gay hairdresser. For example, every description of Helen Lawson, the boozy Broadway star who seems based on Ethel Merman, is delivered in a tone implying that the narrator isn’t exactly impartial; at one point, her face is described as “contorting into the unflattering babyish pucker.”
Despite all the dated aspects — from the fact that sex talk is now ready for primetime and pill usage, at least of the Ambien or Xanax variety, is now fairly standard for rich housewives — Valley of the Dolls is still a fun, ridiculous read. Even if you don’t know about all the films and books (and musicals!) Valley of the Dolls spawned, you’ll want to after you read it. It was never a great book, but it’s still an entertaining one.