Published in 1966, spanning 1945 to 1965, in contrast to Lace, it really isn’t a feminist novel; instead it’s more like a collation of trashy human interest stories thrown together. Twenty years of celebrity gossip columns (think heat, without pictures, more sex and lots of prescription drugs) pulled together in one book. If you want to know who Anne, Neely, Jennifer and the ageing ogre of a star, Helen Lawson are based on, you only have to do some googling.
There’s a particularly illuminating scene where Helen Lawson, feeling threatened by a younger female star in her current musical theatre production, manipulates the director and producer to ensure the younger girl leaves of her own accord, (hence they wouldn’t have to pay her to the end of the show’s run if they actually fired her), by removing her songs and acting to little more than a walk on part. As soon as she’s gone, they offer it to Neely (broadly based on Judy Garland, in case you’ve not found out yet) replace all the songs and acting, and this is the start of her journey to being a big star.
Each woman’s strive for perfection is centred around finding a perfect man, even if that man happens to be already attached to another woman. Each small decision sets them on a path to their own particular brand of self destruction: awful relationship; becoming a megalomaniac movie star; dependency on prescription drugs. I found myself shouting (in my head, obv) no, don’t do that, and reading on through metaphorical gaps in my fingers like when watching a horror movie.
The dolls in the title, aren’t little girls’ toys, they are prescription uppers and downers which during the time the book’s set, were prescribed for back pain, insomnia, mild depression, and dispensed like liquorish all sorts. As the characters’ love lives don’t run to plan (when does it) they take solace with the dolls to help them sleep, but then reach for a different doll, to keep them awake the next day, bright eyed and ready for whatever Susann throws at them.
And it all romps along, until it doesn’t. Until the wheels start to fall of the characters’ lives: Anne realises her boyfriend is a commitment phobic, and will continue to mess her around; Neely starts taking the dolls – first to help her sleep, then to help her work 18 hour days on film sets, before she’s sent to rehab; Jennifer, having finally found a man to love her, realises she has breast cancer and instead of a mastectomy and have her boyfriend lose ‘his babies’ as he refers to her breasts (I know, right!!) she kills herself. So when it goes wrong, it does so in a splendid, Technicolor, multi dimensional way. See what I mean about reading through metaphorical gaps in my fingers!
It definitely doesn’t have a happily ever after ending, so if you squint a bit, you could say it’s ‘artistic’ (quotation marks firmly either side). Anne’s continued dependence on dolls to cope with her darling Lyon’s behaviour (anyone called Lyon was always going to be trouble I feel), is particularly tragic. But whatever you think of the writing, it’s definitely a good romp, just as readable now as when it was published (and sold 30million copies btw) and very much a guilty pleasure. And I’m all for guilty pleasures!
Have any of you read Dolls? What did you think? Do you have any other guilty pleasure reads you can recommend me?
Until next time