BiblioBitch: Sweet Valley Confidential
Psst! Have you heard? Sweet Valley's back—and no, I'm not talking about the Diablo Cody film that seems to have fled from the horizon after the tanking of Jennifer's Body. I'm referring to Sweet Valley Confidential, the new "adult book" from the ever-changing team of ghostwriters laboring under the name Francine Pascal.
Even if you haven't heard of SVC (yes, I'm going to go ahead and abbreve since it's going to happen anyway) this might not be a surprise. After all, the last thirty years have seen numerous, sometimes improbable, incarnations of the twins. I'm not sure when Pascal's drama-filled world stopped being relevant to youth, because when I was in middle school, a good fifteen years after Double Love debuted, over a hundred volumes lined the young adult section in each Barnes & Noble. You may recall that several years ago, SVH was reissued to the teen market with nary a splash, aside from some indignation about the twins' unfortunate change in dress size. Interestingly, though, the new edition is not a novel for teenagers; it is "mainstream fiction," otherwise known as adult-geared. What's that about?
In a word, nostalgia. Someone smells money to be made from the Gen X- and Y-ers, and damned if they aren't right. Look at the new cover, then glance at this older book; it's a total design flashback. Can't you almost hear Enid's tearful confession?
The UK cover is even more overt.
And in fact, when the first pages were released earlier this year, readers protested at the lack of youthful innocence in the text with a chorus that translated roughly to, "No one wants to think about Elizabeth Wakefield's orgasms."
From a feminist standpoint, the Wakefields have always been problematic at best. When the books addressed serious issues such as racism or date rape, the results were hamfisted and often offensive. The stories are moralistic; when drugs appear, so does death. Elizabeth and Jessica are an extreme incarnation of the virgin/whore complex, with Jess a sexy, amoral "valley girl" with a dating hobby, and Liz a smart, sensible student journalist... only, you know, also gorgeous and fashionable and with an active dating life. Pascal herself troublingly referred to the sisters as "the good and bad sides of one person." (However, I must note that this same creator was the mastermind behind Fearless, which, for reasons I won't go into now, might be the best young adult series of all time.) Later in the game, when Elizabeth's goody-goody profile became a joke, the series showed her dark side by having her cheat on her dull "steady," Todd. Repeatedly.
Oh, diary, you'll never guess what I did again...
And now, the moment you've been waiting for: The mostly-spoiler-free verdict.
First of all, all we knew going in was that the twins are twenty-seven and Elizabeth now lives in New York, is single, and is not speaking to Jessica, whom is back in Sweet Valley and engaged. You'll never guess what happened, right? The ads are secretive, but considering that the readers find out within a few pages, I don't know that it qualifies as a spoiler: Jessica's marrying Todd.
Are you groaning yet? This "surprise" could hardly be more obvious, and the Jessica/Todd possibility was explored at least three times in SVH alone. I was rooting for nerdy Winston, but the class-clown-turned-tech-millionaire's lifelong crush on Jessica stays unrealized (unless you count that almost-kiss when they were trapped on an island in Lost at Sea.) Todd's not exactly compelling literary material; this is a guy even Pascal describes as "boring." Besides, pitting the sisters as romantic rivals brings the problems of the characters' virgin/whore construction out in spades.
It's been eight months since Todd was unfaithful to then-fiancée Elizabeth with her sister, prompting Liz to shun them both and move away. At the time, Jess had just left her second husband, a wealthy, middle-aged man named Regan. As added backstory, Jessica and Todd had had a secret fling their senior year in college (a year conveniently not documented before this time) while Elizabeth was sick. Predictable, yes, but also awful. At least the "other woman blame" trope is mostly absent. At one point, Liz imagines Todd as a guppy and Jess as a shark but reminds herself that this isn't fair; she hates and blames them both.
If you're thinking all this doesn't sound like frothy fun, you're right. Sweet Valley Confidential is a largely gloomy book, and it's tempting to think of it as a meta-critique of the Sweet Valley canon. After all, after teen years spent in a dating-centric utopia largely free from consequences, where is there to go? This is a cast of characters for whom high school was undoubtedly the high point of life. Their late-twenties are an unsavory cross between Valley happenstance and what might happen to the cast were they real people. It's as if Pascal is admonishing her now-adult audience: "Did you wish you were them? Think again!" Jess puts it in a way that applies to almost every character:
Life was wonderful and simple when I was queen of the prom, when all that seemed to matter was how cute you were? And I was very cute. Just thinking about those days that are so gone depresses me. Everything depresses me today. Especially my own life.
Those were the days!
Though the couple has remained in Sweet Valley, they are ostracized from their friends for hurting Liz. Meanwhile, said friends are wed and hopping in and out of bed with each other on the sly, but without the joie de vivre they once had. Like much of the book, our looks into the other characters' lives are dreary. Though they have jobs, they appear not to have matured at all from their teenaged selves. Instead of impulsively jumping into relationships, they jump into marriages.
Our looks into the non-Wakefields lives, though, are limited, which is sure to serve as a disappointment to fans. Aside from Todd and former villain Bruce "1BRUCE1" Patman (who seems to have undergone a personality transplant) side characters are relegated to cameos and a lackluster where-are-they-now list in the epilogue. In particular, I missed Liz's ex-bestie, Enid, who is (arbitrarily?) seeing Jess' ex, A.J., and is reduced to "the ex-alcoholic." (Cringe-inducing, and wasn't she into unspecified pills anyway? Moving on...) Speaking of problematic, the only female not described as gorgeous is the still-loathed gossip, Caroline, who's battling cancer. Say what?
There are certainly inconsistencies with the Sweet Valley canon. Notably, the events of the mid-college Elizabeth-with-a-crown series seem never to have occurred, perhaps because we're not meant to notice how similar the set-ups are. (In that series, Elizabeth fled to London and wasn't speaking to Jessica because Jess had kissed her boyfriend, Sam... not the Sam who dated them both and then died in a car crash. The other one.) The most glaring inconsistencies, unfortunately, serve to reinforce the virgin/whore dichotomy yet again, saying Elizabeth had never been unfaithful to a boyfriend and she and Todd had never broken up before the recent crisis. (Really? Not every third book in high school and college?)
Remember the last time Liz ignored Jessica and slept with people other than Todd? Forget it! Never happened!
Then again, continuity issues are nothing new in the world of Sweet Valley. More compelling are the differences in the writing. Sweet Valley Confidential is indeed more novel-esque than anything we've read from the city; it's lighter on dialogue and, when not in Jessica's voice, aggressive in its attempts to be mature. For example:
And that something so precious as their love, hers and Todd's, should have had such an ugly nascence was an unalterable truth, and no matter how far and how gloriously it had transformed, there was no escaping its beginning.
Now let's look at this excerpt from SVH's Murder in Paradise:
"Fifteen love," [Chris] said in a strong, clear voice as he set up for his next serve, and Elizabeth sensed that in addition to announcing the score, he was sending her a special message. A message about love… (source)
Case in point.
Lest this all sound like a total bummer, I'll admit that one mid-book revelation made me exclaim aloud from shock and delight. In that moment, I could almost recall the feeling of reading "R" for Revenge on a beanbag chair while the Spice Girls played on cassette. Plus, for all the book's strange developments and shortcomings, I could barely put it down.
If you care, or have ever cared, about the Wakefields and their cohorts, Sweet Valley Confidential is likely to sadden, anger and thrill you, in that order. Still, I recommend it, if for no other reason than I find it to be a fascinating literary experiment. Sweet Valley Confidential presents fans of the once-idyllic suburb with more to unpack than I would have thought possible.
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