Currently Reading: Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley Confidential

U.K. cover

Are you a Jessica or Elizabeth? Although I just tested Elizabeth*, I’m quite sure I’m Jade Wu who, Wikipedia informs me, turns trampy and nasty a year after we meet her as a sophomore in Out of Reach, but I digress.

I was just the right age to read Sweet Valley High, that I shall dub The Original Series, and not get into the spin-off series in any great depth. Looking through the list of novels in The Original Series, and surprising myself with what I can remember of general plots, I’m pretty sure I read up to and including #74 of the total 143 books. I also read a number of the special editions, remembering most fondly the twins’ maternal ancestry saga in Wakefields of Sweet Valley Magna Edition. I remember picking up an SVH in the #100s and being in disbelief of how sensational the storyline had become! I even watched the short-lived television series and was devastated when it came to an end.

Thanks to the Twitterverse, earlier this year I learned about the latest novel being published on March 29, 2011. The story will continue next year in web-only installments and the Diablo Cody movie version is coming next year. I smell a money trail….

Two months after Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later was published, I finally managed to receive a library copy. I used to read those books in a single evening but it made for rather engrossing reading while at the gym spread over a week of elliptical sessions. I didn’t mind the prospect of savouring “the last book”.

Sweet Valley stories are all about the plot and the secret that revealed through the chapters. It’s not too much to divulge that at the beginning of the novel, Elizabeth has left her hometown of Sweet Valley to flee the betrayal of her own twin sister, Jessica, having an affair with Todd, Liz’s long-time on-/off-again boyfriend and fiance! Elizabeth’s new life in nitty, gritty New York is in stark contrast to sunny, perfect south California. The twins have been estranged for eight months at the beginning of the novel and through flashbacks to high school, university, and just eight months before, the details of the destruction of the twinship are revealed. What happened eight months ago? How can the sisters reconcile?? They have to reconcile, or else all is not right with the world!

The Good. There was some good, in my opinion. My own experience currently clouds my judgment so I felt sympathy when Jessica was tortured by the loss (separation) of her sister because of who she chooses to have a relationship with. You can stretch it a bit to become a parallel with my situation and I know that the Jessica-Elizabeth story would be solved very nicely by the end of reading the book but my ongoing trials will most certainly not. This mirror of my circumstances makes the novel more memorable than it was apt to be. In a twisted way, I enjoyed the segments that lobbied to explain Jessica’s outward extroversion and deviousness to hide feeling inferior to her sister–even an identical twin could plausibly compare herself unfavourably relative to her sister. I also missed the requisite description of the twins that occurs within the first chapter of every novel, describing their golden-blonde hair, sky-blue eyes, and perfect size 6 5’6″ frames: “Gorgeous. Absolutely amazing. The kind you couldn’t stop looking at.” I think Francine Pascal may have missed launching into the twins’ description. You kind of missed the characters and looked for them in their 27-year-old versions.

The Bad. Oh, but unfortunately there were many more of these. Lil’ Sis looked up the reviews and wanted to tell me but I had a couple more chapters and the final reveal to get through first. I was going to form my own opinion… before weaving in other comments.

Audience. Many readers, myself included, were not sure who the novel was written for. People who grew up reading Sweet Valley books who are now in their mid-twenties to thirties? The current crop of young adult readers? For both audiences, the novel missed the target. I think, although how could I know or remember, it is too juvenile for even tween/teen set. And for the older readers I think the novel either had to be stuck in the innocent past, that we’re nostalgic for, or thoroughly updated with the mature writing and story that we’ve learned to appreciate since leaving secondary school.

Writing. This was an entirely laughable area and it seems as unfair as kicking a man when he’s down but let’s proceed.

  • The flashbacks were confusing to me and, I checked, other readers with inconsistent shifts in tense that made some flashbacks and others exposition of a previous time.
  • I was entirely jarred by the Valley Girl use of “like” in Jessica’s point-of-view flashbacks–the writing was just fine without the “likes” peppered through her thoughts and each incidence made me have to check if a comparison was being made with the “like”. Other readers confirm that in The Original Series, Jessica did use “like” like so.
  • The characters swore! First the b-bomb, then the s-bomb, finally the f-bomb. And then it would just turn up again. It wasn’t necessary and I noted quite a few were from Elizabeth, which was too dark for her character.
  • The description of love was as terrible as ever, not updated for the times nor was it realistic for the mature readers. Worst of all, the unrealistic concentration of dating and making out in high school has graduated now that they are late-twentysomethings to…. It probably made many an Elizabeth fan cry to read that “she cried after every orgasm” and one embarrassingly short-but-explicit Elizabeth love scene reeked of Harlequin. I thought explicit references was hurtful to the novel–not speaking as a prude but as a purist of The Original Series.
  • In the acknowledgments, Francine Pascal thanked someone for teaching her technology terms yet they were mostly clumsily used. Only “Googling” came off fluidly since I suppose FP does that often herself. Otherwise, mention of using Facebook were clumsy and “updating Twitter” was glaringly awkward–to be fair, at the time of writing and today still, “tweet” as a verb is not in the dictionary and FP and/or editors played it safe. I also groaned at multiple references to the twins’ link at the “DNA” level. Please don’t refer to it that way–it’s a lazy and ignorant attempt at trying to literally describe how closely joined they are.

Story. I needed a little bit of help to confirm how wonky the storyline went given my SVH knowledge ended at #74. Sweet Valley High is The Original Series, as far as I’m concerned, so inconsistent storylines created by the team of ghostwriters in the spin-off series should be tossed when writing this new book for continuity. I managed to identify a couple of minor inconsistencies but readers cried foul really loudly. First of all, Jessica would never, never ever be with Elizabeth’s Todd for longer than one ill-conceived one-night stand. Then, the twins would never be estranged for that long over a guy. It’s the largest disappointment to see careless development of the main characters, the Wakefield twins. Other characters’ development over a decade, often briefly summarized, were not based on the personalities developed over 100 installments of SVH; this culminated in an epilogue that tried to wrap up all the characters’ storylines like you see at the end of some movies (e.g., Legally Blonde)–any attempt at cheekiness in the epilogue was lost so the update on the minor characters seemed flippant and written without thought. Fans of the minor characters were disappointed by the out-of-character conclusions and there might be a large sentiment hoping the story would get set straight in another ten years and that Sweet Valley Confidential would turn out to be “just a bad dream”!

That would probably be the best and most hopeful conclusion.

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* An Amazon.com comment rang true with me: most of the people who’d sit still and read these Sweet Valley books are Elizabeth’s, reading and dreaming we could have fabulous lives in high school. And recognize the Elizabeth in ourselves, we all secretly want to be more like Jessica.

On this day..