by Rae Lawrence
(Crown Publishers) $22
Valley of the Dolls
by Jacqueline Susann
(Grove Press paperback) $12
It would be easier to climb Mt. Everest in stiletto heels carrying a poodle than it would be to write a serious sequel to Jacqueline Susann's cult favorite Valley of the Dolls. Imagine being handed Susann's scribbled notes (and I'm sure a laundry list of legal and language restrictions) and then asked to create something fresh--and equally revolutionary, overblown, and beautiful as the original. Then imagine, on top of that, trying to write in the shadow of someone who had Jacqueline Susann's monstrously glamorous, carefully constructed, and controlling personality.
Another reason Valley of the Dolls is such a hard act to follow is that the novel was so intimately animated by Susann's relentless hunger for fame, power, and revenge. Susann was a catalytic, controversial force in the publishing industry and the media throughout the mid-'60s until her death in 1974. At the time of its release in 1966, Dolls was panned as literary trash--"sensationalist, sex-obsessed, superficial." Highbrow critics hated it: "I would rather see dogs fornicate than read your love story," a literary critic once reportedly told Susann. But readers--particularly women readers, many of whom were not in the habit of buying books--adored it. Even if you turn your nose up at its literary merits, it's hard to ignore Susann's brilliant ear for dialogue, the strength of her characters, and her breathless pacing. In modern times, the campy, comic 1967 film adaptation (starring Patty Duke and murdered starlet Sharon Tate), although a different beast than the book, has helped to keep the Valley of the Dolls legacy alive.
Faced with the impossible task of following up with a blockbuster sequel, Rae Lawrence has actually done a decent job in penning a non-threatening interpretation of Susann's notes for Shadow of the Dolls. The sequel, as a shadow indeed, lacks the power and purpose of the original. Lawrence writes like the ideal understudy for an insecure superstar (albeit a dead one)--she doesn't threaten to dominate the stage. Like a safe and painless pill to swallow, Shadow is an easy read... and easy to forget. Lawrence's writing never takes any big risks with style or plot as she ushers Susann's characters into middle age and struggles with ungrateful children, bear markets, and bad livers.
Valley of the Dolls followed the gloom-tinged lives of three women friends in New York City as they rose and fell through fame, fortune, and pharmaceutical habits. Susann's characters were based loosely on composites of celebrities whom she knew when she was a young aspiring stage and film actress. There's the Marilyn Monroe-type buxom blonde, Jennifer North, who eventually dies of an overdose; Judy Garland was the inspiration for the mercurial, talented, and often unstable torch singer, Neely O'Hara; and then there's Anne Welles, the blue-blooded Boston princess based loosely on Susann herself, livened with a hint of Grace Kelly. At the end of Valley, Anne Welles is in her early 30s.
She's still in her early 30s when Lawrence picks up Susann's story line in a strange, cybernetic fashion: Lawrence freezes the ages of all the main characters in the book and lifts them, deus ex machina-style, above the darkness of the Vietnam War, the early AIDS crisis, and the Reagan years, dropping them down with teenage children in 1987, the year of the stock-market slump. Lawrence opens Shadow with a barely interesting question: "Whatever happened to Anne Welles? People used to ask." It's exactly the kind of passive hook Anne Welles herself might invent. In fact, come to think of it, Shadow feels like it was penned by Anne Welles, while Valley, which opens with a heat wave and the metaphor of New York City as "an angry concrete animal," seems to be voiced by the blunt, engaging Neely O'Hara.
So it comes down to this: After you spend your weekend afternoon reading Lawrence's polite Jacqueline Susann imitation, executed with a competent, linear plot line and rhythmic (but emotionally empty) dialogue, you'll want to pick up the original. You'll be primed for the bitchy, action-stuffed Valley of the Dolls, written by the desperate, glorious, workaholic master of well-paced gossip, whose feverish ambition was to win your love. The sequel works. Susann keeps her crown.