Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sweet Valley Confidential by Francine Pascal

(Warning: contains spoilers)


I collected Sweet Valley Twins books like young boys collected baseball cards. Their candy-colored spines were lined up on my shelves, ready to be traded with friends, passed around, and discussed. When I had devoured everything I could, and began to feel a bit too old for the sixth grade adventures of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, I firmly felt that I was ready to move on to Sweet Valley High and the "mature" adventures that high schoolers have. My mother disagreed. So I got my fix of Sweet Valley High in the library, after my mother had dropped me off for the afternoon. I spent hours curled up on the floor of our town library, devouring the illicit adventures of the "adult" Wakefield Twins. Yes, at that point in my life, junior year of high school was way adult to me.

Therefore, the prospect of being introduced to the Wakefield Twins as actual adults (or as twenty-seven year olds, just a year younger than me) was enticing. Not only would I be able to see where all of my favorite characters had ended up in life, but I would also finally get a tale of Wakefield twins who were actually approximately my age and see a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion to a key part of my childhood.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Sweet Valley Confidential opens on Elizabeth Wakefield, living alone in New York City, working for the online theater magazine Show Survey, a sort of "Zagat ratings guide of Off Broadway" (p. 5), as she so often has to explain to people. We are immediately confronted with her utter hatred of Jessica, as Elizabeth ignores a pleading phone call from her sister. The reason for this sisterly feud, and the crux of the entire book, is Jessica's engagement to Todd Wilkins, Elizabeth's former boyfriend and her lifelong crush. And not only has Jessica stolen Todd, but she started this entanglement with him back in college, and then revived it while Todd and Elizabeth were still together. As Elizabeth mopes in New York City, starting a semi-romantic relationship with an upcoming playwright/Todd-lookalike and planning her revenge, Jessica and Todd are home in Sweet Valley. Although the entire town looks askance on them, judging their betrayal, Jessica refuses to leave her hometown, from a mix of stubbornness and a "this is where I want to raise my kids" sentiment.

As expected, the entire book is basically a set-up to get Jessica and Elizabeth back in the same place, for the inevitable blow-up, shakedown, and reunion, but the way Pascal goes about it is contrived and seems to drag on forever. Both Elizabeth and Jessica, characters who I desperately wanted to be as a middle schooler, were reduced to pathetic caricatures, simply acting upon their basest instincts. And the plot was just a bares bones shell of an outline, with Elizabeth and Jessica repeating the same lines over and over.

Elizabeth: "I hate Jessica. I loved Todd. Oh, betrayal, betrayal. I'm too weak and wimpy to act, or to even tell people how I feel."
Jessica: "Oh, Todd, everyone hates us. But I love you so. But I love my sister, too."
Todd: "Uhhh........."

Pascal (who I recently discovered didn't even write the Sweet Valley High books back in the day) is a perfect example of why it is a bad idea to tell, not show. Everything is spelled out for the reader, and we never get a true glimpse into either of the Wakefield twins, never get to see why they feel the way they do. We are just hammered over the head with their angst. Additionally, some of the writing just plain doesn't make sense at all, or is so flowery that it invites eye-rolling: "Their eyes were shades of aqua that danced in the light like shards of precious stones...There wasn't a thing wrong with their figures, either. It was as if billions of possibilities all fell together perfectly. Twice" (p. 9-10). On multiple occasions while reading, I looked up to exclaim, "WHAT is going on here?", to the amusement of my husband. (I will not even go into the sex scene that appears in the last chapter of the book. The language used here would make third-rate romance novelists appear to be National Book Award winners.)

However, the oddest thing about this book was the way that Elizabeth and Jessica thought of each other. While I am not a twin and have no idea how twin relationships work, or their level of closeness, Pascal wrote this novel as if Elizabeth and Jessica were actually involved in a torrid romantic relationship. The two seemed to pine for each other in a way that slightly disturbed me, aching for each others' bodies. It was just plain weird.

While it was nice to be able to see some of the characters that had appeared in the Sweet Valley High series, these supporting characters didn't get much air time, save for the small mentions of what they were doing as adults, and a brief anecdote to illustrate this. Save for Bruce Patman, who did a completely 180 overnight and transformed into Elizabeth's best friend, and Steven, their brother, no one else really factors into the story. I would have liked to see more of an appearance by both Lila Fowler and Enid Rollins, who were Jessica and Elizabeth's best friends, respectively, but the narrative is very tightly focused on the twins themselves. I believe Sweet Valley Confidential suffered from the exclusion of the other residents of Sweet Valley, who were a key part of the Sweet Valley High books.

Ultimately, I am glad that I read this book, simply for the nostalgia factor. I wouldn't discourage any Sweet Valley Twins or Sweet Valley High fans from doing the same themselves. But I wouldn't hand this to anyone who had never read the Sweet Valley books before. Perhaps the reader needs that firm grounding in the Sweet Valley universe to retain their love for the Wakefield twins after reading Sweet Valley Confidential.



7 comments:

  1. I am so jealous that you got a copy already. I loved those books as a child and I cant wait to read this one.

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  2. Oh my goodness. There are times that you just can't go back, but it sounds like this book could have used a GOOD dose of going back and finding some of the magic those books had.

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  3. What a bummer. I am a die hard SV fan, from "SV Twins and Friends" all the way through "SVU," but I've heard nothing but negative about this new installment. The FYA post was particularly harsh/hilarious :)

    That being said... I've got to read it anyway! Just can't pass up a chance to reunite with Jessica and Elizabeth.

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  4. I never read the Sweet Valley books in the first place (deeming them too girly for me--the younger me would be appalled at some of the things I read now), but your review was enjoyable. It reminded me of the time my friend and I tried to watch Jem. Bad idea. Some childhood loves are better left to the imagination.

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  5. Have you reread the high school ones as an adult? They are... awful. They are so much worse than you remember -- not just plotwise, but in terms of sheer inappropriateness. I REALLY enjoy rereading them (we just got a huge donation at my library yesterday, and I finished one in one sitting last night), but in the same way I sometimes enjoy awful reality TV.

    I'm bummed the new one disappoints.

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  6. @Allison I re-read the first SVH book, Double Love, when they updated the cover and some of the pop-culture references. Yeah, it was an experience.....

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  7. Does it make me a bad YA reader that I didn't read the SVH books? I don't know why but I never found them appealing. :(

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