Has the big trashy novel gone the way of the big screen romantic comedy? The answer is a heartbreaking yes. But just like a re-watch of a Nora Ephron classic (Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, anyone?) can satisfy a yearning for the latter, there are plenty of books from yesteryear to feed a craving for the former. 

It's never too early for a hot beach read, so here's a round-up of twelve titles (ranging from the 1950s to the 2000s) guaranteed to leave you a little shocked and totally absorbed. I call it The Dirty Dozen. 

“I figure the Contis are the bride, because they’re going to end up getting the check for all of this. And the Lancasters are the groom, because they don’t give a goddam about anyone except themselves.”
— Montana from Jackie Collins's HOLLYWOOD WIVES

MIAMI by Pat Booth (1992)
The British-born Booth pivoted from successful runs in modeling and photography to a whiz-bang career in fiction writing. Her outrageous plots and over-the-top eroticism went hand-in-hand with full-volume glitz and pop psychology. Worth a scavenger hunt is the audio program narrated by actress Morgan Fairchild, only available in a 3-hour abridgement on cassette. 

LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell (2005)
The Sex and the City mastermind is in brilliant form for this New York novel tracking the girl power lives of Nico, Wendy and Victory. Author Bushnell is equal parts plot weaver and cultural anthropologist here. She also executive produced a two-season NBC series based on the novel. Unfortunately, the strong, well-cast show was marred by a writer’s strike and network scheduling blunders, leading to a premature cancellation.

HOLLYWOOD WIVES by Jackie Collins (1983)
This is the career juggernaut that metamorphosed Collins into a literary star every bit as glittering as the real celebrities she loosely chronicled with such cheeky wit and wisdom. Essential companion viewing is the cast-of-thousands ABC mini-series, which rounded up top names like Anthony Hopkins, Candice Bergen, Suzanne Somers, Angie Dickinson and Stefanie Powers to fill out the guess-who-don’t-sue character roster.

“Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
— Lili, from Shirley Conran's LACE

LACE by Shirley Conran (1982)
“Which one of you bitches is my mother?” So asks the vengeful Lili after summoning four women to her New York hotel suite. What follows is a heavy-breathing multi-decade saga that personifies the big, sexy novels of the glitzy 80s. This is a door-stopper of a book–the original manuscript came in at 1,300 pages! Fun fact: Conran took character descriptions of her four heroines to a psychiatrist (for analytical input) prior to starting the novel.

Loosely based on the real life murder of Vicki Morgan, a high-end prostitute and dominatrix linked to department store heir Alfred Bloomingdale, this is Dunne at his acerbic, name-dropping, social x-ray vision best. Bloomingdale’s society doyenne wife Betsy—painted as a hit woman in fictional form here—iced Dunne publicly but thawed out when he became the go-to guy for O.J. Simpson trial gossip.

THE USERS by Joyce Haber (1976)
Haber, a cutthroat gossip columnist for The Los Angeles Times, retired from the newspaper to crank out this scorcher of a Hollywood novel, which shot straight to number one on the bestseller list. At the peak of her Charlie’s Angels fame in 1978, Jaclyn Smith headlined the TV movie based on the book.

She tells herself she’s creative and queens it queenly over Camelot like Marie Antoinette playing at milkmaid. But Golda Meir or Barbara Jordan or Queen Elizabeth or Madame Curie she ain’t.
— Spider from Judith Krantz's SCRUPLES

THE BEST OF EVERYTHING by Rona Jaffe (1958)
Jaffe’s first and most successful novel was not only a structural inspiration for Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls in the next decade but a window into a new society of young working women trying to balance career ambitions and romantic entanglements. All these years later it still resonates with a keen emotional intelligence. It became a big, glossy screen film with Joan Crawford in a featured role as well as a short-lived daytime serial.

SCRUPLES by Judith Krantz (1978)
This rags-to-riches, ugly-duckling-to-swan saga took the publishing industry by storm and established Krantz as the high priestess of the sex-and-shopping novel. Her approach to character is ferociously passionate, as are her famous love scenes. This blockbuster spawned two sequels, the aptly titled Scruples 2 and Lovers.

THE LONELY LADY by Harold Robbins (1976)
Robbins dedicated this novel to friendly competitor Jacqueline Susann, who died of cancer during the writing of this torrid, bleak tale about JeriLee, a hard-luck aspiring writer who marries at 17 and endures tragedies and indignities galore on her way to Hollywood success. The 1983 film version starring Pia Zadora (and a young Ray Liotta) lives on as a hall of fame so-bad-it’s-riotously-good movie. 

“What would a washed-up little has-been like you know about a vibrato? I’ve been on top for thirty years and I’ll stay on top as long as I like. But you better keep singing for free, because that’s all you’ll get.”
— Helen from Jacquline Susann's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

RAGE OF ANGELS by Sidney Sheldon (1980)
Sheldon was already a blockbuster author (The Other Side of Midnight, Bloodline), but this novel sent him into the stratosphere with its potent mix of courageous heroine, steamy romance, mob danger and shocking plot twists. Jaclyn Smith’s star turn in the TV adaptation made her Queen of the Mini-Series during the 80s.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS by Jacqueline Susann (1966)
The ultimate single-girls-in-New-York novel was a bonafide cultural phenomenon and remains (with sales north of 31 million) one of the bestselling novels in publishing history. The campy film version, which featured Sharon Tate in her best-known role, has for years over-shadowed this important book. It crackles with raw narrative drive and brutal emotional truths. 

TAN LINES by J.J. Salem (2008)
All of the authors included here inspired my own foray into this arena, so I’m including it in this roundup. Tan Lines was a bestseller in the UK and migrates the three-girls-in-New-York story model to the decadent Hamptons. I was over-the-moon when the late, great feminist medical journalist and Jacqueline Susann biographer Barbara Seaman called it a “21st century Valley of the Dolls” in a pre-pub cover quote.

“Yeah, God forbid you treat me to a meal before or after. I might get confused and think you want to start picking out china patterns.”
— Billie from J.J. Salem's TAN LINES

Almost all of these are easily available from your local bookseller or Amazon. A few might require a quick search from a used book marketplace (ABE is my go-to source). The process of culling my favorites to a dozen was a hair-pulling exercise, so I might have to get to work on a sequel.

Do you have any favorites that didn't make this list? Leave your suggestions in the comment box below. Would love to hear them!

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