Thursday, July 1, 2010

Valley of the deep deep depression

I just finished reading the Valley of the Dolls, and man, what a depressing book! A more appropriate title might have been Valley of Depression. *Spoiler Alert* if you are in my book club, and have not finished the book, you’ll probably want to stop reading here.

The story revolves around 3 women living in NYC: Anne, a nice girl from Connecticut wanting only to escape rural life and support herself, Jennifer, a beautiful girl on a quest for fame, and Neeley, a waif with real talent bent on self destruction. The three fight to make it in NYC and Hollywood while maintaining romances and finding true love.

Anne manages to marry the man of her dreams, the love of her life though he winds up cheating on her with every new starlet taking chunks of their marriage with him until there is nothing left but silent tolerance. Jennifer proceeds through a series of relationships in which men only want her for her body. Then when she thinks she finds true love, ends up killing herself because she realizes the man she thought loved her for her would be devastated if she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer. Neeley runs through two husbands only to steal Anne’s and drive him away through her alcohol and drug abuse. We don’t find out her final fate, but it is safe to say that she ends up dying alone of some sort of overdose.

All three women are highly successful in their careers. Neeley is a broadway, movie, and television star with a spectacular voice and rampant fan following. Jennifer starred in French films and was such a raging success that America recruited her again for films. Anne starred in commercials as the face of a major cosmetics chain and had her own television segment. They were financially comfortable, and the only woes in their lives seemed to be cause by romances which finally made them all so miserable they turned to pills for comfort.

However, both Jennifer and Neeley went through long periods of life where they could not make ends meet on their own incomes. Without family to help support them, they were forced to use their bodies to obtain support from lovers, both male and female. It really calls attention to the need for financial independence to ever have total control over ones own body. It highlighted the ability of women to stab each other in the back even after the most fervent professions of friends forever. Themes of the story include: women on an endless quest for fulfillment through love, fear of aging, the importance of physical beauty.

At times it reads like a smutty romance novel. It hooks you in, and you must find out what happens to all three. I found myself hoping against all odds that all three would live happily ever after, yet all three lives ended in tragedy. After pondering it all for a little while, I’m not really sure what message Jacqueline Susann was trying to send with this novel. That women are evil creatures bent on destroying each other? That women are overly dependent on relationships for their own happiness? That men are pigs who only care about young, thin, physical beauty? That true love does not exist?

Or maybe she just wanted to take a look at the real hard issues that women faced during the 1940’s. In the time period this was set, marriage was still a practical commodity, women needed a husband to support them financially to live, and found themselves making all kinds of compromises in the process of keeping that marriage alive. And yet, women were beginning to gain freedom to become gainfully employed and support themselves, giving them the option to shun marriage if they wished. However, none of these characters, despite their material success, wanted to live without love in their lives (who would?). So what, pray tell, is the moral of the story?

I’m not sure. Jacqueline Susann seems to want to show how vulnerable women can be, while also emphasizing their ability to survive nearly anything. The book reads like a warning, feel free to make moral sacrifices to obtain your goals, just be sure you can live with their repercussions for the REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Even though it was a bit of a downer, it was an easy read that I enjoyed. And for a 25 cent bargain, the hours of entertainment it gave me cannot be beat. Now, on to the next book in my queue.

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