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Friday, December 3, 2010

Sweet Valley Confidential, Confidentially

Posted By on Fri, Dec 3, 2010 at 3:41 PM

Daily RFT recently got its hands on a review copy of Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later. (Don't ask us how -- we'd have to kill you.) If you weren't a pre-pubescent girl in the late eighties or early nineties, this will mean nothing to you.

But, if you were, you undoubtedly have vivid memories of twin sisters Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield and their classmates at the mythical Sweet Valley High somewhere in Southern California. You probably remember their adventures better than you remember anything that actually happened to you during those precious formative years.

Who could possibly forget the time Elizabeth got into a motorcycle accident and lost her memory and almost Did It with rich and arrogant Bruce Patman, though, sadly, not in his black Porsche with the 1BRUCE1 license plate? Or when a psycho named Margo -- who looked just like the twins!!! -- insinuated herself in their lives and wreaked untold havoc? Or how Bruce's deaf girlfriend Regina Morrow tried cocaine one time and died because she had an undiagnosed heart murmur? (And how many of you believed -- just the slightest bit -- that the same thing could happen to you?)

We do not use the term "mythical" lightly. The description of the twins is repeated with Homeric frequency in each of the 181 volumes in the original series (not to mention the various spin-offs which show the characters at different ages, from first grade through college): silky blond hair, aquamarine eyes, perfect size six figures. Elizabeth is sensible but still fun. Jessica is self-centered but still lovable. See, they look alike, but they're very different. It's archetypal!

The series never bothered to explain how the twins managed to remain sixteen years old for fifteen years and countless summer vacations and spring breaks, how everyone in Sweet Valley was rich and gorgeous or how the twins never appeared to suffer from PTSD despite all the kidnappings, attempted murders and dead boyfriends. You were supposed to accept it, the way you accepted the beautiful, never-changing gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus.

It's true that the absurdity of all of this did not occur to us until long after we stopped reading the Sweet Valley books. Or, to be perfectly honest, until a high-school sleepover when we raided our friend's little sister's stash and spent the rest of the night reading aloud and laughing hysterically.

We're not the only ones: a whole crop of websites have sprung up that summarize and analyze the titles in the Sweet Valley canon. Among the best and most complete are The Dairi Burger (named after one of the twins' favorite hangouts) and 1BRUCE1.

Sadly, Francine Pascal, who created the series and wrote Sweet Valley Confidential, still seems to think we're nine years old and take all this shit seriously. The new book has a few nods to some of the more beloved Sweet Valley storylines, like the tragic death of Regina Morrow, and the last few pages are an epilogue telling readers what happened to some of the minor characters (Mr. Collins! Winston Egbert! Enid Rollins!), but mostly Sweet Valley Confidential is a self-contained, completely unironic tale of love and betrayal between a pair of 27-year-old twin sisters who happen to be named Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield.

See, Elizabeth was totally in love with Todd Wilkins and was about to marry him -- when Jessica swooped in and stole him away! It's a nice echo of the very first book in the series, Double Love, where Elizabeth and Jessica also fight over Todd, and in Sweet Valley Confidential, the characters look back fondly on those happy events.

Only Francine gets the facts wrong! (OK, it's a Sweet Valley High book, so we use the term "facts" lightly, but still.) Elizabeth and Todd totally did not go to the Harvest Dance together! Jessica went with Todd, and Elizabeth went with Winston Egbert, and Todd and Elizabeth exchanged longing looks across the gym because Jessica had only tricked Todd into asking her out and Elizabeth was the twin he really loved.

(What could have been better a use for the brain space we used to store that bit of information, we wonder?)

Somebody at St. Martin's Press obviously knew what a cult classic Sweet Valley High has become, because why else would they agree to publish Sweet Valley Confidential? And yet you'd think they realize that fans of cult classics remember stuff, even stupid stuff -- like that Elizabeth is the older twin by four, not three, minutes. That sort of fan loyalty should be honored and respected by someone involved with the book actually going back and bothering to read the damned books!

For the record, the writing is dreadful. We have the most overblown description of the twins ever to appear in print:

Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield appeared interchangeable, if you considered only their faces.

And what faces they were.

Gorgeous. Absolutely amazing. The kind you couldn't stop looking at. Their eyes were shades of aqua that danced in the light like shards of precious stones, oval and fringed with thick, light brown lashes long enough to cast a shadow on their cheeks. Their silky blond hair, the cascading kind, fell just below their shoulders. And to complete the perfection, their rosy lips looked as if they were penciled on. There wasn't a thing wrong with their figures, either. It was as if billions of possibilities all fell together perfectly.


Now that the twins are 27, they drink and drop the f-bomb and have actual sex instead of narrow escapes. You may be unsurprised to learn Elizabeth "crie[s] after every orgasm" until she meets a new, really special guy:

The heat and sweat of their fervor combined to fling them onto their own trajectories and land them together at almost the same moment. This time, there were no tears from Elizabeth.

As a possible nod to the late 90s spinoff Sweet Valley Senior Year, which tried to be all emo by including diary entries, poems and song lyrics purportedly written by different characters, Sweet Valley Confidential has little interludes where Elizabeth, Jessica, Todd, et al, tell their own versions of past events in the first person. The only problem is, nobody bothered to go back and make sure all the verb tenses are consistent.

It's not like we expect greatness from a Sweet Valley book, even the reunion that some of us have been waiting years for. It would probably be impossible for anything to live up to our expectations.

But to present us with this...this half-hearted attempt at an update, with almost no acknowledgment of the qualities that made us love the original Sweet Valley so much -- the campiness, the ridiculousness, the improbability of it all -- verges on insulting. (There is, however, one hilarious Shocking Revelation.)

Plus, St. Martin's is publishing it in hardcover. When it finally comes out in April, you'll have to pay $21.99 for the privilege of owning it. The original Sweet Valley High paperbacks went for $2.50 apiece. Even if you make adjustments for inflation, there's no reason to have to pay any more than $5 for a Sweet Valley book. Yes, it's nostalgia, yes, it's our youth, but really, we're not baby boomers. We don't believe our youth is worth $21.99!

That all said, we must admit: We read the whole damned thing in three hours without even intending to. And howled with laughter all the way to the end.

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