You might know me as Nenia Campbell, but my full title is Queen of Literary Trash, Protector of Out-of-Print Gems, Khaleesi of Bodice Rippers, Mother of Smut, the Unrepentant, Breaker of Convention, Lady of Take Your Misogyny and F*ck It. So obviously when the Goodreads blurb for this book advertises VALLEY OF THE DOLLS as an "addictively entertaining trash classic," you know I just have to read it.
For several days, the adventures of Neely, Anne, and Jennifer held me in thrall. I figuratively clutched at my pearls. I felt my insides figuratively curdle in disgust. I cringed, I laughed, I teared up. These women sometimes made me want to slap a witch, but they were nuanced and interesting and fascinating. The writing fell somewhere in between Susanna Kaysen's GIRL, INTERRUPTED and Jackie Collins's ROCK STAR.
Which is it, you wonder: social commentary or trash?
Now that I've finished the book, I'm wondering, though, if the people who are calling this book "trash" read the same book as me. It's written in the vein of a lot of other books about superficiality, like Bret Easton Ellis's LESS THAN ZERO (or anything written by Bret Easton Ellis, really), or anything by J.D. Sallinger, but in particular, THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, or anything by... oh, who the hell else out there plays the siren song for the disaffected and overly ambitious? But those books have received critical acclaim and are praised as literature. This...isn't.
Here's the thing, though - VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is a book about women. Specifically, about women during the Civil Rights Era, at a time when women were suddenly allowed to pursue their own dreams while also being held to the outmoded conventions and expectations of the previous decade. Sure, you can have your career, but only while your looks last, and people are still going to judge you by the men you're roping in and whether or not you've managed to keep them. And all the while, you have men standing on the sidelines, gaslighting you: "Why are you complaining? You've won! Look how successful you are, you dumb broad. We've achieved equality for you ungrateful bitches - now shut up and be grateful." Let me tell you, some of the nastiest comments I've gotten from people on this site were from the angry dudes who were mad at me for writing negative reviews about their beloved man-lits. And let me tell you something else - that those men who bawl the hardest over criticism of said man-lits are often also the first - and the loudest - to condemn and marginalize typically female-dominated genres, like romance novels or women's lit.
VALLEY OF THE DOLLS seems like trash because on the surface it's about several young women who become raging successes but can't deal with Hollywood and New York's respective brands of sleaze and pressure, so they turn to drugs to ease the burden and let them sleep at night. They booze, they pop pills, they sleep around. Everyone's beautiful - at first - and charming - at first. It's a bit like a soap opera. But this is different than the usual brand of "pretty people f*cking"-type books, because if you read between the lines, there's some very cutting social commentary on marriage, on success, on double standards, on beauty, on happiness, on equality - on virtually any subject you can think of. And it's interesting that while books like Bret Easton Ellis are lauded as classics and their odious male antiheroes are, if not beloved than at least regarded with fascination or interest, books starring flawed and odious female characters are far less apt to be forgiven and much more likely to be panned by critics as trashy or morally suspect.
I think one of the crowning examples of this mindset are the Judd Apatow style bro comedies about unattractive slackers who end up inexplicably getting a beautiful woman who finds their man-child mentality quirky and refreshing. It's like an inverse of the manic pixie dream girl trope - except that the woman is still the medium through which the man's narrative journey is developed and carried, even when this trope is turned on its head. The woman is either the prize of his narrative arc, or the vehicle through which he is carried through the arc. There is little to no agency. She has no hopes, no dreams, no ambitions... because that would eclipse the journey of the hero. The women in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS are in full control of the wheel - they might be driving their vehicles off the road or in some cases, crashing them in headon collisions, but they are in full control of their vehicles; they are the ones piloting their own destinies, even if society is limiting the roads. That's what made this book so compelling for me. It's utterly brilliant. And utterly heartbreaking.
4.5 out of 5 stars