Raunchy, retro and ridiculous: why every woman needs a classic trashy book club

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Writer Helen Ellis and her friends gather regularly to discuss their favourite retro, raunchy and ridiculous reads. But, she says, a good trashy book is about more than just sex and scandal.

Here, the author of American Housewife shares the delights of a Classic Trashy Book Club – and the ten novels that should be at the top of every woman’s reading list.

My name is Helen Ellis, and I am a member of a Classic Trashy Book Club.

Our members include three prosecutors, a therapist, an interior designer, a famous Instagram cat lady, a P.I.-turned-housewife, and a housewife-turned-writer: me.

We formed this group a few years ago during a Super Bowl party. Some of us were there to watch the football game, some of us were there to watch Beyoncé during half time, and some of us were there to eat part of a subway sandwich that stretched the length of a buffet table.

Whatever our reason, we got to talking. What we found ourselves talking about was books – and then, our favorite books. And then our truly favorite books, which we’d only admit to after a couple of Chardonnays and a fistful of onion dip: our favorite classic trashy books.

For a novel to count as a classic trashy book, certain criteria must be met. A classic trashy book must be at least 20 years old. At one point it may have been banned, made into a TV mini-series, or spent a summer on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s classified as erotica, chick lit, romance or trash.

There is usually a woman’s face on the cover of a classic trashy book. Sometimes she’s wearing a large-brimmed hat to infer mystery, or a veil to suggest tragedy. Often she’s holding an index finger in front of her lips, as if to say: Shhhh, listen up. I am going to tell you some secrets so juicy that you’ll want to tell your friends my secrets before I finish telling you all my secrets.

One of this woman’s secrets is predictable: sex.

Central to a classic trashy book club is the belief that the only thing better than reading about sex is discussing the sex that you read about.

These novels might be about sex with the wrong man, or sex with the right man. Or they might be about sex with a woman. Or no sex, because our heroine has had too much sex – but gosh darn it, she’ll write about all the sex she did have.

But there’s more to a classic trashy book than sex, and there’s more to our book club than sex talk. These books are all about second chances, and my book club is made up of women who’ve taken them.

Watch: The books guaranteed to mend a broken heart

Our members, like our heroines, have been around. We’ve made mistakes, but we try. We’ve been hurt, but we survive. We start over and then we start over again. Maybe the choice is to get out of a bad marriage or maybe it’s to start an empire. Depending on circumstances, both are equally brave.

Fun fact: a lot of our novelists wrote their first books over the age 40. Despite sales, most of them didn’t get the critical respect they deserved. Truman Capote called Valley of the Dolls author, Jacqueline Susann, a “truck driver in drag”.

But my book club doesn’t judge our authors or characters or each other that harshly. We champion a good story.

If you want to start your own trashy book club – and you should – here are 10 classics to get you started.

American Housewife by Helen Ellis is out now by Simon & Schuster, priced £8.99.

Images: Getty

  • Princess Daisy (1980) by Judith Krantz

    Plot: Poor little rich girl loses her fortune, but then builds it back by painting other poor little rich girl’s portraits.

    Important characters: A secret twin, an evil brother, a mistress with a heart of gold, a kind and gentle lover, and best of all, a dog that never dies.

    Get it here.

  • Wifey (1978) by Judy Blume

    Plot: A bored housewife figures out what she can do all day: have affairs. There’s tennis and pool parties, diaphragms and tampons, hypochondria and hors d’oeuvres, and our heroine finally “gets her dessert.”

    Important characters: A high school boyfriend and a masturbating motorcyclist with a heart of gold.

    Get it here.

  • The Carpetbaggers (1961) by Harold Robbins

    Plot: A Native American rides into 1940s Hollywood and rides his horse off a cliff to become the best stuntman in show business. We witness the invention of an aerodynamic bra, and somebody loses his penis.

    Important characters: A lesbian in silk pyjamas, a megalomaniac film tycoon, a sexpot movie star, and a hooker with a heart of gold.

    Get it here.

  • Lace (1982) by Shirley Conran

    Plot: Four grown-ass ladies gather in a hotel room and are asked, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” You think you know all there is to know about sex, and then somebody does something with a goldfish that you’ll never forget.

    Important characters: An Arabian prince with a heart of gold (noticing a theme yet?) and a cross-dressing husband.

    Get it here.

  • The World is Full of Married Men (1968) by Jackie Collins

    Plot: A neglected housewife swings into Swinging London. There’s orgies, fat camp, fashion shoots, and our heroine gets a do-over at happily-ever-after.

    Important characters: A younger man, an older man, a model who’ll sleep with anyone to get to the top, a sadomasochist secretary with a heart of gold, and Frank Sinatra.

    Get it here.

  • The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1985) by Dominick Dunne

    Plot: A showgirl marries rich and discovers: you marry the man; you marry his mother. A tale of social climbing and shotguns, all based on a true story

    Important characters: Bang Bang and Bratsie, Cinderella-like evil sisters-in-law, a closeted designer with a heart of gold, and a conniving society reporter.

    Get it here.

  • The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983) by Fay Weldon

    Plot: A woman’s husband leaves her for a romance novelist. What follows is possibly the best book ever written about revenge, featuring arson and accounting, housekeeping and hell to pay – plus an extreme makeover the likes of which you have never read.

    Important characters: A hamster in a tureen of mushroom soup, a pool boy in a mansion, an office temp in bed with the enemy and a nursing home aide with a heart of gold.

    Get it here.

  • Valley of the Dolls (1966) by Jacqueline Susann

    Plot: Once upon a time, there were three little girls who moved to Manhattan. They did not live happily ever after because they couldn’t stop playing with ‘dolls’ – pills that make you happy or sad, skinny or fat, awake or asleep for days on end.

    Important characters: Virgins and vaudevillians, a porn star with a heart of gold, and a theatre diva who gets her wig snatched off. 

    Get it here.

  • The Thorn Birds (1977) by Colleen McCullough

    Plot: A priest falls in love with a 13-year-old girl and fights his attraction to her for years. I find this creepy, but the book made an impression. The Australian Outback is hot. Not sexy hot, hot hot. There’s sweating and flies, sheep and sugarcane, prizefighting and unwanted pregnancies.

    Important characters: A husband on the down-low, a redhead with a heart of gold, and the meanest, most deliciously conniving grandma who ever lived.

    Get it here.

  • Scruples (1978) by Judith Krantz

    Plot: A young widow uses her inheritance to open a Beverly Hills boutique called Scruples. I want to go there because there are jars of candy in the dressing rooms. Before our heroine starts her own business, she lives in France and finds out how French women stay thin. She then moves to New York City, and finds out how Manhattan women have orgasms.

    Important characters: A best supporting actress with a heart of gold. And yes, Judith Krantz appears twice on this list because she is the Queen of Classic Trashy.

    Get it here.