Much has changed since "Valley of the Dolls" was first published in 1966. Even the title, which passed into the American idiom to describe the addiction to prescription drugs, has fallen out of use, and I wondered what, if anything, a reissue could hold for the contemporary reader.
The story spans a 20-year period of three young women who meet and become friends when they tackle the Big Apple to take a bite for themselves. When the story opens in 1945, Anne Wells, a Radcliffe graduate and the consummate WASP, is escaping the ritual social ossification of her New England home town; dancer/singer Neely O'Hara is hoofing it in third-rate joints with a vaudeville trio called the Gaucheros; and bit actress Jennifer North is trying to barter an incredible body for love, security and respectability.
Neely and Jennifer have large, voracious dreams, while Anne's are less defined, but they live in a time when the dreams of most women are relatively childlike and escapist in tone, and almost always begin and often end with finding a husband.
Neely and Jennifer find success in their fields first, and the deprivations of their childhoods lead to their adjusting their realities with prescription drugs. The path of Neely's disintegration wasn't a new story even in 1966, but it was only much later that the trap of prescription drug addiction was recognized as a silent epidemic among middle-class American housewives.
"Valley of the Dolls" was a publishing phenomenon, and its success rests on Susann's understanding of women and their dreams, and her practical experience as an actress.
The 1997 edition of "Valley of the Dolls" is both a period piece and a cause for reflection on just how much growing room women have claimed - as well as a reminder that the reason some themes recur throughout literature and the popular press is that a good story is always a good story. Reading "Valley of the Dolls" today is like coming upon a box of old clothes tucked beneath the attic eaves, and upon opening it, finding the outmoded finery captures all too poignantly where, and who, we once were.
Reviewed by Anna Garris Goiser.