SVH #50: Out of Reach (Revisited)

29 Sep

Amy stuck out her lower lip in a pout. “But she’s Chinese! She doesn’t look right for the part. The soloist for the finale should be blond, all-American – like me.”

The original cover, circa 1988. Peep that anniversary sticker.

Details: Originally published in October 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 151 pages. My copy has a gold leaf stamp celebrating the series’ 5th anniversary.

Summary/Overview: There’s a big talent show fundraiser coming up for a dance program that Sweet Valley High wants to offer students. The show will focus heavily on music and dance, with one slot at the end of the show going to a soloist dancer. Amy Sutton wants it, but she has competition in relative new-kid at school, sophomore Jade Wu. Jade has been taking private dance lessons for years and is very good, but her conservative Chinese-born dad forbids her from dancing in public. Despite his rules, Jade auditions for the show and wins the solo slot, much to Amy’s extreme ire. Jade conceals this from her parents for as long as she can, but she has to confide in her mom when she realizes the dress rehearsal will fall on a weekend. Her mom says that she will try to convince Jade’s dad to allow her to dance at the show but she might have to pull out at the last minute.

Meanwhile, Jade has been spending time at school with David Prentiss, a nice boy who likes art and works as a delivery driver after school. The fact that he’s only a sophomore and probably barely has his license is not addressed. Jade thinks he’s cute and nice but turns him down when he asks her out because she’s not allowed to date at all, let alone date a white boy. This causes them to quarrel, and David stops speaking to Jade for a while.

Through some dumb and extremely boring plot contrivances, Amy Sutton, who is positively seething with resentment and jealousy about Jade getting the starring role, visits the laundromat that Jade’s grandparents own. Amy decides this is delicious, juicy gossip, and spreads it all over school. Jade is embarrassed about this and it causes her further stress.

Jade’s dad allows her to dance at the show, but he says he won’t attend. Then he has a change of heart and is incredibly impressed by her talent. Jade’s performance is fantastic! Everyone thinks she was brilliant, including a random guy in the audience, who offers Jade a scholarship to dance with a troupe in Los Angeles under the condition that she accepts the money with the name Jade Warren. He claims that the benefactor, an old rich (white) lady, is a little “funny” about ethnic names. Jade declines the offer because she has to stay true to herself and her family.

The B-Plot: Ned Wakefield’s 25th high school reunion is coming up, and he worries he’s getting too old. He starts exercising a ton and complaining about how terrible it is to be in his (early) forties, and so Jessica and Elizabeth devise a plan to help him see that aging isn’t so bad. They enlist the help of Alice, and it basically includes signing him up for a bunch of workout things, including a marathon training plan that has him running 12 miles a day (???) and inviting him to go to the Beach Disco to listen to rock music, which he hates. Ned realizes that getting old isn’t so bad. Yay?

The German cover, which translates to “The Girl from the Foreign Land,” which isn’t even true! Jade was born in America.

Mr. Wakefield looked at his wife and daughters. “You really think there’s hope? That I can make myself younger by working out more?”

Sweet Valley High Social Calendar:
Estimated elapsed time: 3 weeks
– Music and dance variety show at SVH
– Cast party at Guido’s

Trivia/Fun Facts:
– Mrs. Bellasario is the director of the talent show
– David has five brothers and sisters
– The Razors are a rock band playing at the Beach Disco and one of their songs is “Cut Me, Babe, Why Don’t You Cut Me”

Pop Culture:
– Beating the “Jessica was in You Can’t Take it With You” horse to death
– The Nutcracker

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis)

I mean, no, for a variety of reasons. There’s something so distinctly uncomfortable about reading a book written decades ago for a predominantly white audience (and presumably by a white ghostwriter) about a girl who is supposed to be Chinese-American trying to fit in with her 99.9% white classmates. Everything about the book feels a little troubling, from the way her parents are characterized to her own internal monologue to the way her classmates and teachers perpetrate microaggressions. What’s most alarming is that I’m not even sure the book is aware that some of the things that happen are microaggressions? They don’t feel intentional to the narrative.

The last time I recapped this book, I talked about the nasty scene in the classroom when Jade’s history teacher calls on her specifically to get her perspective on China. This still hits in an extremely bad way, and the book absolutely frames it as her teacher being well-intentioned and Jade being in the wrong for lying about her heritage. It’s deeply fucked up, and while I know the book was written literal decades ago, it’s still absolutely wild to experience in 2022. Woof!

But I was struck this time by the fact that the book lets so many other moments go by that are…not great. There’s Amy’s overtly racist comment about Jade looking Chinese and not “all-American” (which really makes you wonder about the series’ continued use of “all-American” good looks to describe the Wakefield family). At one point, David says something about Jade’s looks being “distinctive,” which is…yikes. And of course, the book’s resolution involves the weird plot point about Jade changing her last name for the scholarship to not appear too “ethnic.” The word race is never used, yet again. It’s all just…incredibly unsettling.

What a time to be alive.

SVH #49: Playing for Keeps (Revisited)

22 Sep

She blushed. “Oh, I was thinking about – about nuclear war,” she fibbed lamely. “You know – how terrible it would be if there were one and everything.”

The original cover, circa 1988

Details: Originally published in September 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 165 pages.

Summary/Overview: Jessica is still firmly ensconced in her weird role-playing thing where she’s pretending to be shy and deep to keep the (rapidly waning) attentions of A.J. Morgan. When the two go for a run along the beach at Secca Lake, they see someone drowning offshore, and A.J. runs in and saves her. The drowning girl is named Pamela Janson, who goes to nearby Whitehead Academy, and Jessica is furious when it becomes clear that she’s interested in A.J. and is being flirtatious and outgoing in her attempts to get his attention.

The thing is, it seems to be working, largely because A.J. seems to be pretty horny. Though he struggles with feelings of loyalty to Jessica, he can’t help but be surprised that he’s drawn to Pamela’s forward nature and starts to wonder if he wants to be with Jessica, who wants to talk about serious things like poetry, nuclear war and other bummer stuff.

Jessica’s friends want the old Jessica back. One day at the mall, the girls discover an upcoming fashion show contest wherein the winner will receive a whole new wardrobe designed by the head designer for Lisette’s. Jessica signs up, but so does Pamela, who happens to be at the mall, too. On the day of the fashion show, Pamela does everything she can to sabotage Jessica, including intentionally catching her bracelet in Jessica’s sequined gown, destroying the zipper teeth on another outfit, and pouring a cup of water on Jessica right before she’s supposed to head onstage in her bathing suit. This last event is the final straw, and Jessica loses it at her, unleashing holy hell. The curtain opens on them mid-tirade, and the owner of the store is so impressed with Jessica’s spunk that she declares her the winner. Pamela runs off, and A.J. decides he really likes this version of Jessica, so the two continue dating.

The B-Plot: There really isn’t one. There’s some rumbling about an upcoming dance performance and chatter about who the best dancer is at SVH, and people keep mentioning a sophomore named Jade Wu. It’s all set up for the next book.

“I was thinking about joining the Peace Corps myself. I’m definitely for peace,” she added fervently.

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 4 weeks
– Fashion Show Contest at the Mall

Trivia/Fun Facts:
– Jessica attends a save the whales meeting
– Elizabeth is still playing the recorder. We’ll take any continuity we can get.
– Pamela drives a white Mercedes convertible
– Lila and Amy go to the library to photocopy things from an encyclopedia. Kids, ask your grandparents.
– The clothes at the fashion show include an “Outback” style denim dress

Pop Culture:
– Emily Dickinson
– Walt Whitman
– Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
– (Re-mentions) Splendor in the Grass, You Can’t Take it With You

Absolutely losing my mind at the title of the German edition: Help – Jessica is Flipping Out!

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis): Look, I’m going to level with you all: I think A.J. Morgan is boring, and I cannot believe that this mayonnaise dude has two beautiful (evil genius) girls fighting over him. Like, he’s not worth it, y’all! Join together and take over the world instead of trying to outsmart one another so that you can be on the arm of the world’s most mediocre man.

I also don’t fully understand what message or moral the book is going for here. I think it’s trying to hammer home the idea that it’s important to be true to yourself? Everyone misses the old Jessica and wants her back. At one point, Elizabeth reminisces fondly about how the old Jessica was a scheming, manipulative person, which I guess is supposed to be charming but doesn’t quite land? But one could make the argument that the only person who is being who they truly are here is Pamela, and she’s vilified for it.

So being a manipulative mastermind who will stop at nothing to get what she wants is only virtuous if you’re a blond identical twin who is also a perfect size six? Very cool!

SVH #48: Slam Book Fever (Revisited)

15 Sep

“It’s called The Crystal Ball,” Amy said pretentiously. “It’s like a glimpse into the future. See, we’ll all make a whole section for it in our books, and then we can include more new categories. Like, ‘Most Likely to Have a Million Dollars by Age Thirty.'”
“That’s not much of a question,” Lila said with a yawn.

The original cover, circa 1988

Details: Originally published in August 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 137 pages.

Summary/Overview: Amy Sutton introduces the concept of Slam Books at SVH. Basically, everyone (the girls in this case), get composition notebooks and start creating categories in them (like “Biggest Flirt” or “Most All-Around Nice”) and pass them around so that everyone can write down their votes for each category. This is literally a clunkier version of yearbook/senior superlatives, but okay. Elizabeth and Enid express reservations about the practice, rightfully pointing out that this could quickly spiral out of control and hurt people’s feelings, but everyone else is super into it.

When the girls exhaust most present-day superlatives, Amy comes up with the idea of a “Crystal Ball” section where they try to predict the future. This leads to the creation of the category “Couple of the Future,” and it isn’t long before Jeffrey French’s name starts appearing in every slam book, but instead of being paired with Elizabeth, he’s paired with newly single Olivia Davidson, who has just broken up with Roger (Barrett) Patman. This is complicated by the fact that the two have been spending a lot of time together on a phot essay project for the launch of the school’s new literary magazine. Elizabeth tries to ignore the constant pairing of her boyfriend and her friend, but things get worse when Cara tells her that she saw Jeffrey and Olivia parked on the side of the road in what appeared to be an embrace.

Liz fully spirals and starts flirting with new-guy A.J. Morgan (more on him in the B-plot) in order to make Jeffrey jealous. She won’t listen to reason from him (Olivia had something in her eye when Cara saw them) and ignores both of them at school. Despondent, Olivia goes to Jessica to try to figure out who keeps writing her name in the slam books, and through some clunky detective work, they discover that the only person who doesn’t have Olivia and Jeffrey written in their Slam Book is Lila, who thinks that breaking up Liz and Jeffrey will allow her to pursue him. They decide to get back at her by creating a new category and writing her name in: Class Sneak. Owned, I guess?

When Liz realizes what’s happened, she makes up with both Olivia and Jeffrey, just in time for the lit magazine’s launch party. Wonderful!

The B-Plot: A.J. Morgan has moved to Sweet Valley, joined the basketball team, and caught the eyes of all the girls at school. This is especially true of Jessica, who finds herself feeling tongue-tied and shy whenever he’s around. This is great news for A.J., who prefers his ladies quiet and demure. He gets the idea in his head that Jessica is quiet, reserved, and shy, and she decides that she can be those things for him. Even though she’s never been a one-guy kind of girl, she’s determined to catch A.J. This is largely set-up for the next book, and there’s not much in the way of forward momentum here.

Cara looked upset. “I guess I didn’t handle this well. I should’ve kept my mouth shut and stayed out of other people’s business.”

We finally have another edition to showcase! This one is German and translates to “All for Friendship?” INCREDIBLE.

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 2 weeks
– Basketball game
– Lit Magazine Launch Party
– Olivia Davidson and Roger (Barrett) Patman break up

Trivia/Fun Facts:
– Lila uses a beach towel that says THE RITZ on it
– L’Escalier is considered one of the fanciest French restaurants in town
– A.J.’s name stands for Adam Joseph, a fact repeated multiple times in this godforsaken book

Pop Culture:
– People Magazine
– Christie Brinkley
Tender is the Night

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis): Who says that teens need social media to bully their classmate! Sweet Valley kids were doing it long before the internet took over our souls, minds, and bodies. Things go off the rails here pretty quickly, which is to be expected – though I think Lila’s scheme is better than most of the hare-brained ones these dumb-dumbs cook up, it doesn’t fully make sense to me. I thought Lila got over her interest in Jeffrey a long time ago, and there’s been no sense in any of the previous few books that she might still be carrying a torch for him. Haven’t we established that he’s really boring (and borderline abusive sometimes)?

The Olivia and Roger stuff is weird, though. The book makes mention of the fact that they’ve been having “problems” for a while but it’s never really clear what those problems are. The book seems entirely uninterested in these two (which is fair – they are boring), but then why make it a plot point at all? I guess at least it’s over with fairly quickly, which is more than I can say for the rest of this book, which despite clocking in at a very slight 137 pages, feels MUCH longer.

SVH #47: Troublemaker (Revisited)

8 Sep

“Well, he’s your future fraternity brother, Josh. If he’s so awful, why are you even bothering to pledge Phi Epsilon? You must see something worthwhile in all those guys if you’re dying to be one!”

The original cover, with a Molly Ringwald doppelganger, 1988

Details: Originally published in July 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 166 pages.

Summary/Overview: Elizabeth is taking recorder lessons from musical prodigy Julie Porter, and it isn’t long before she notices that Julie seems to be nursing a crush on Bruce Patman, who appears to be back on his fuck boy bullshit following the death of his girlfriend Regina. Bruce is deep into pledge season for Phi Epsilon, and Julie’s neighbor and longtime friend Josh Bowen is pledging. Elizabeth thinks that Josh is a much better match for Julie, but she’s got her heart set on Bruce. When Bruce asks her to the dance/party he’s holding as part of the fraternity’s pledge season, she’s over the moon. Despite many people warning her that Bruce might be up to something and that there’s a pretty substantive rumor that he might already have another date, Julie is resolute in attending with him.

At the party, Bruce openly switches his attentions between Julie and Danielle, who is his other date. He kisses Danielle in one corner and then leads Julie to another area of the party and sits close to her, laying it on thick and making her feel special and as though he’s really into her. Julie is nervous because she’s never even kissed a boy before, but she tells herself that Bruce is being romantic and a gentleman. He excuses himself to change the music, and then when he comes back, the two begin to passionately kiss. Only Julie realizes that it’s not Bruce but Josh, who is also being pranked as part of his pledge hazing. Before he can explain the situation, Julie runs out of the party in tears.

Josh angsts about quitting but feels like he can restore the fraternity to its former glory (lol). He decides to stick out the pledge season, which requires more ridiculous dares, like acting like a monkey and kissing girls as they pass by in the hallway at school (seriously, what the FUCK?). His final dare comes in the cafeteria, when Bruce orders Josh to get a bunch of Jell-O and…dump it on Julie, I guess? It’s extremely weird. Josh takes the Jell-O and dumps it on Bruce instead of Julie. Bruce blows up at him, but Josh doesn’t care: he quits! He begs Julie to let him explain and the two make up and I guess start dating? It’s all too much for me.

The B-Plot: Jessica decides to try out for the school play, You Can’t Take it With You. The role she wants requires ballet, so she starts practicing like crazy and neglects to read the play prior to auditioning. Her main competition is Danielle, a senior who is also auditioning for the Los Angeles Ballet Company. Jessica flubs her dance audition but gets a callback and then realizes that the character she’s auditioning for thinks she’s a great dancer but is actually a disaster. She is horrified until Liz convinces her that it’s the most interesting part in the play, and she decides to do it. She’s magnificent!

“So when do you want me to slip the arsenic into Bruce’s milk shake – tomorrow at lunch?”

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 3 weeks – 1 month (there’s a time jump where everyone sees Jessica’s play)
– Auditions for You Can’t Take it With You/performance
– Phi Epsilon Pledge Season
– Party at Bruce Patman’s (Phi Epsilon)

Trivia/Fun Facts:
– Casey’s Ice Cream Parlor has a sundae called the Diet Breaker
– The Wakefields eat veal one night. Gross
– The Summer Wind Consort is a “hot new group” that Julie’s a fan of

Pop Culture:
– Splendor in the Grass
– You Can’t Take it With You
– Romeo & Juliet
– Don Juan

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis)
Let’s not mince words here: what Bruce and the other Phi Ep bros do to Julie and Josh is despicable. It is uncomfortably close to sexual assault, especially in the case of Julie, who has consented to kiss Bruce but has not consented to kiss Josh, and does not know that she is kissing him until it’s happening. It’s remarkably fucked up and the fact that this book was published in the late eighties means that of course we don’t have any of this vocabulary to describe what happens here. Reading it this time around, I was way more horrified than I remember being in the past.

After I finished this book, I went back to read my recap from about a decade ago, and was unsurprised (but disappointed) to find that while I was aghast at what transpired, I didn’t really dig into it. It’s clear that I had checked out on this one (again, not surprising: it sucks). But in a post-#MeToo era, this hits…different?

It’s not just that the “prank” they play on Julie and Josh is gross (and convoluted). It’s the way that Julie is used as a prop for the boys’ amusement, and the way that the book doesn’t grapple with this in any real way. These are books for young teenage girls, and I can’t help but feel like whatever moral or lesson the book is trying to teach, the real ramifications of what occur on the page are completely missed?

Anyways, it’s a big old YIKES for this geriatric millennial. Bruce Patman sucks.

SVH #46: Decisions (Revisited)

1 Sep

“Don’t worry,” Robin said.  “Every time I go to diving practice and see myself in a bathing suit, I say, ‘Don’t eat–don’t eat.’ So far it’s worked.”

The original cover, circa 1988

Details: Originally published in June 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 165 pages.

Summary/Overview: Robin Wilson has inexplicably applied early decision to Sarah Lawrence and been accepted, even though she’s only a junior. She’s feeling ambivalent about this achievement, and it’s clear that it’s been pushed by her mother and her aunt, who has offered to pay Robin’s tuition there. Robin hasn’t told her boyfriend George because it would mean a cross-country separation, and she’s unsure if he’ll take that news well (spoiler: he will not). When George does find out, he blows up at her, and Robin assumes that her best friend Annie Whitman told him, so she blows up at her. It’s a whole mess, especially because Liz is the one who spilled the beans, albeit accidentally.

Robin is in a full tail spin about the entire thing, which is bad timing, because she’s got a big diving championship coming up. Her performance suffers as her anxiety about the decision increases, and these things are compounded by a visit from her rich and pushy aunt, who seems to have opinions on basically everything. Robin’s aunt tells her that it’s Sarah Lawrence (and it’s next year) or nothing: she will either pay for Robin’s tuition or she won’t, and it’s completely on her terms. She also shit talks diving and athletics in a weird turn of events.

At the meet, Robin bombs the first dive until she sees George in the audience and gains the confidence she needs to put in a good performance. She crushes it, impressing everyone (including her aunt), and her coach tells her she might have a shot at an athletic scholarship when she’s ready for school. Everyone makes up. All is well, except for me – I am extremely unwell at how stupid this book is.

The B-Plot: Jessica needs pocket money, so she gets a job babysitting for a little girl whose brother turns out to be a total hottie. The problem is that he’s way more interested in practicing music than he is in Jessica, so she decides to take up music, too. She settles on playing the recorder, even though she’s terrible at it. When she finally gets his attention, he tells her he’d be thrilled to date her when he’s finished with his degree in a few years. Meanwhile, Liz discovers that she’s great at the recorder and takes it up as a hobby after keeping her talent from Jessica out of fear she’d be jealous or something. This book is bullshit.

“And what’s this I hear about your diving?” she continued. “Honestly, Robin. I had no idea that you wanted to be an athlete, of all things.”

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 2-3 weeks
– Diving championship

Trivia/Fun Facts:
– The wooden recorder Jessica looks at is $300, which would be about $750 in today’s inflation (lolsob)
– Robin has two brothers, which feels like extremely new information
– Lila travels with an oriental rug for the beach
– Mention of the Cote d’Or, a fancy restaurant in Malvina

Pop Culture:
– “Greensleeves” and “Jolly Miller” are mentioned as songs
– Mozart, Debussy
– Brahm’s “Lullaby”

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis):
I mean, no. No, this one does not hold up. Not a single thing in this book makes any damn sense! You don’t just apply to college “early decision” as a junior. That’s not even what that phrase means! Having perfect grades would also not qualify you to leave high school early – there’s never any mention of Robin having taken extra credits to allow her to graduate a year before the rest of her class. None of this makes any sense, and then when you couple this with the fact that her aunt seems to be insisting that Robin either go to Sarah Lawrence next year or not at all, it’s like find a basement in hell. Why couldn’t Robin get the money to attend the school in another year, when she would be graduating with her class? We don’t know, because it’s never mentioned!

Then there’s the fact that George behaves like a total asshole, making demands of Robin that he really has no right to. I get that teens don’t want to break up when their significant other moves across the country, but twisting it around into something that he blows up at her over is really weird and honestly pretty alarming? It’s all for naught, too, because Robin decides to finish high school and also not go to Sarah Lawrence, so…

Anyway, I hated this one!

SVH Super Thriller #2: On the Run (Revisited)

25 Aug

“Oh, are you listening to the trial?” Darcy asked. “My father said there’s no way Frank DeLucca will go to jail. He thinks this is all being staged by the media so it will look like the legal system in this country really works.”

The original cover, 1988

Details: Originally published May 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 213 pages.

Summary/Overview: We’re back in the summer that the twins are working as interns at the Sweet Valley News, and now there’s a new intern named Darcy Kaymen, who is really, really annoying. She and Liz butt heads almost immediately, mostly over their differing opinions about a big trial happening out east that everyone is obsessed with. It involves a (gangster?) named Frank DeLucca who is on trial for murder (maybe? unclear), but no one is sure he’ll be convicted because witnesses keep ending up dead or rescinding their testimony. At the last minute, a doctor comes forward and testifies, resulting in a conviction. The doctor goes into witness protection. The fact that we know this bodes well for the realism of the rest of this book.

Liz meets a barista in the coffee shop on the main floor of the office building. His name is Eric Hankman, and he just moved to town from Ohio. Liz connects with him over a love of writing, and she’s horrified when Darcy announces that he’s perfect for her. When he doesn’t seem to return her interest, Darcy decides he’s defective, and then when her friend from Ohio (she’s also from Ohio! Coincidence knows no bounds) tells her about a grisly murder of a teenage girl there, she decides that the murderer is Eric because he’s moody and secretive. She and Jessica do some investigating and are sure they’re right, but instead of telling a grown up or going to the police, they just keep investigating.

Meanwhile, Liz struggles with her feelings for Eric, since she’s absolutely still dating Jeffrey (still at camp for the summer). When Eric finds out that she has a boyfriend, he gets really upset. When she tries to explain, they’re derailed by a medical emergency in the coffee shop: a little boy is choking to death, and while everyone stands around helplessly, Eric’s dad rushes in and performs an emergency tracheotomy, revealing the fact that he’s really a doctor – in fact, he’s the doctor who testified against DeLucca, and his witness protection coverage has been blown! Eric is really Michael. They must pack and leave town.

Liz rushes to the Hankman house to say goodbye, and while she’s there, some hired goons show up and keep them hostage at gunpoint. Liz urges Eric/Michael to press a silent alarm, and the neighbors and police show up and arrest the goons. See, people really are good! Eric/Michael still has to leave town, but he leaves his notebook of poems with Liz so she’ll always remember him. Woof.

“Oh, Liz,” Michael said, folding her in his arms for a last embrace. “You’ve given me the most wonderful gift in the world. You’ve made me believe in people again.”

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 3 weeks to 1 month (time is really something in this one)
– Darcy Kaymen moves to Sweet Valley
– Summer vacation

Trivia/Fun Facts:
– We’ve reached July, according to Jessica
– Eric’s birthday is in May, and Darcy brags that he’s a Taurus
– Enid has a cat named Muffy
– The book refers to Los Palmos, when I’m sure it’s always been Las Palmas in previous books

Pop Culture:
– Vogue
– James Bond
– Petrarch

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis):
It’s wild to me how convoluted this plot is, considering how boring the actual novel is, and how little actually happens. The book spends an inordinate amount of time talking about a trial happening across the country for almost no reason, and then has the characters largely spinning their wheels for the rest of the book. It isn’t until the last 20 pages that anything really happens, and what happens plays out so bizarrely on the page that it’s hard to conceptualize what is actually going on.

The series has never been great at descriptions of action sequences, but there is something deeply funny about the goons with guns showing up and basically making Eric/Michael’s dad throw his suitcase down the stairs, and then, just, like, sitting inside the house with them? The fact that they allow him to answer the phone after the silent alarm is pressed is also extremely funny, and the fact that a dozen neighbors basically rush the door and overpower the gunmen is also something straight out of a Lifetime movie. The whole thing is truly perplexing.

But that’s how I feel about the entirety of this book, which took me almost 2 weeks to get through: no one behaves normally, the stakes don’t make sense, and nothing about this feels realistic to how the Witness Protection Program works? Liz falling in love with Eric/Michael is whatever – the weirdest part of her storyline this time is how naïve she acts throughout the book. She cannot believe that Eric is so jaded and continues to insist that people are good and that no one in Sweet Valley would ever tip off the “bad guys” that Eric and his dad were in town. It’s so weird and I think in the end, we’re supposed to believe she’s right? Like, what?

SVH #45: Family Secrets (Revisited)

11 Aug

“You know,” Jessica muttered, “it’s pretty mind-boggling to think I’m helping to fix Nicholas Morrow up with someone else. Even if she is my cousin.”

The original cover

Details: Originally published in April 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 150 pages.

Summary/Overview: Kelly Bates, cousin to Elizabeth and Jessica (her mom is Alice’s sister), is coming to stay with the Wakefields. She’s having trouble adjusting to her new family situation, because her mom is getting remarried to a man who has children of his own. Apparently Kelly is staying for a while, because they enroll her in classes at Sweet Valley High. The twins are thrilled and decide to play up the fact that Kelly looks a lot like them by dressing alike and messing with everyone. Before Kelly arrives, Alice warns the twins to not say anything disparaging about Kelly’s dad, even though they’ve always been told he’s kind of a deadbeat.

Kelly arrives and hits it off with the kids at school and catches the attention of Kirk Anderson, who she becomes immediately smitten with, despite the gentle warnings from the twins and basically everyone else that he’s not a very nice boy. The twins were hoping to set her up with Nicholas Morrow, but Kelly only has eyes for Kirk. He asks her to be his date for the upcoming costume contest and dance at the country club and she says yes, even though she’s also agreed to go with Nicholas. She doesn’t bother cancelling her plans with Nicholas, either.

All Kelly can talk about in the days leading up to her birthday is the arrival of her father, whom she completely adores. She brags about him letting her do whatever she wants when she’s with him, and she plans to ask him to move closer to Sweet Valley so she can stay and live with him instead of her mom. On the night of her birthday, her dad shows up super late, doesn’t bring a present, and stays for about five minutes before claiming he has to rush back to L.A. for a client dinner. Kelly is crushed but still can’t admit that he might be a complete piece of shit.

The twins and Kelly decide on a group costume for the party: they’ll go as the “no-evil” monkeys (as in see-no, speak-no, hear-no), and spend a bunch of time working on their costumes. At the dance, their costumes are a hit, and it isn’t long before Kirk has convinced her to blow the popsicle stand and go hang out at Miller’s Point. Once there, he cracks a beer open and tries to have sex with her, not taking no for an answer until she literally fights him off and kicks him in the shins. Enraged, he throws his bottle at some rocks, and the sound of glass breaking triggers a long-repressed childhood memory of why her mom left her dad. She runs home crying, and Kelly’s mom gets on a plane to come get her. She’s going back to Tucson.

The B-Plot: None to speak of.

“Yeah, that’s why you wanted to wear a leotard,” Elizabeth teased. She tossed the ball back into the water. “You just want to show off that gorgeous body of yours.”

Sweet Valley Social Calendar
Estimated Elapsed Time: 2 weeks
– Kelly’s 17th (??) birthday
– Costume contest/dance at the country club

Trivia/Fun Facts:
– Costumes at the party include Pirate (Kirk), “traditional” Mexican girl (Sandy), Donald Duck (Ken), Princess Diana (Lila), dirty wino (Jeffrey), Rita Hayworth (Susan Stewart), Hippie (Enid), a bunch of grapes (Winston)
– Store name alert: Sport Zone and Book Worm are mentioned
– Steven has been up in Puget Sound doing a “term project”

Pop Culture:
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
– 3 little pigs/3 Musketeers/3 blind mice
– Tess of the D’Ubervilles
– Ernie/Sesame Street
– Gourmet magazine

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis): Woof, I don’t know. I know that these books are not known for their nuance (and that I’m beating a dead horse at this point), but nothing about the plot here makes much sense. If Kelly is having trouble adjusting to changes in her home life, why would the answer be shipping her across the country to live with people she hasn’t seen in nearly a decade? How would that help her get used to her new stepfather and step-siblings? Also, we’re just pulling teens out of their school in the middle of the year and plopping them into a new school for just a couple of months without a moment’s hesitation? ALSO ALSO: wouldn’t Kelly’s mom have to come and actually enroll her, or are Alice and Ned being granted legal guardianship over her? I know I’m overthinking this, but it’s very weird to me, and it’s more fun to think about these giant plot holes than it is to think about the situation with her dad, which is a huge bummer.

There’s no nuance in these books when it comes to plot or characters, but even so, Kelly’s dad makes my skin crawl. The truth is that though he’s underdeveloped and probably a bit of a caricature, the way he behaves when he finally deigns to show up for her birthday (a scene that still makes absolutely no sense to me in terms of logistics) isn’t that far off the mark from how I’ve seen m*n act in real life. So, there’s that.

The only other thing worth touching on here: Nicholas Morrow asks Kelly to go to the dance with him, and she accepts before also accepting Kirk’s offer. The twins ask Kelly to make sure to tell Nicholas her plans change, and she never does this, and it’s never brought up again. Then it appears Nicholas doesn’t show up at the dance at all? Did this plot point just get dropped?

SVH #44: Pretenses (Revisited)

2 Aug

Jessica frowned. Abbie, a sweet-tempered brunette who had never spent much time with Jessica or any of her friends since ninth grade, suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

Why is Steven in a full on suit here?

Details: Originally published in February 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 153 pages.

Summary/Overview: Steven Wakefield is coming home for a few weeks to get extensive allergy tests done. The fact that it appears to be the middle of a semester doesn’t seem to matter, nor does the fact that he could absolutely commute for his doctor’s appointments – this book is not concerned with logic, only with incredibly stupid plot points. Cara is excited that he’ll be home; lately she’s felt as though they aren’t as close as they once were. Jessica gloms onto this insecurity and tells Cara that she needs to inject some mystery into their relationship. In all honesty, the only mystery I have (and want) in my own relationship is the mystery of why my husband takes so long in the bathroom, but this book seems to mean something different.

Cara is also throwing herself a birthday party months after her birthday because she feels like she didn’t get it right the first time, so she invites a bunch of her friends and Steven to have a fancy lunch at a restaurant. She’s excited about it and talks about it in front of Abbie Richardson, who she then doesn’t invite. Abbie feels really sad when she realizes she was snubbed, and when she gives Cara the present she bought her, Cara is mortified, as she honestly should be.

Meanwhile, Cara grows frustrated by the fact that Steve is still acting snappish, withdrawn, and generally avoidant. Abbie has been spending a lot of time at the Wakefield’s house (more on that in the B-plot), and Steven finds that Abbie is a sympathetic listener. Jessica sees this and convinces herself that Abbie’s trying to “steal” Cara’s man, and this plot is stretched to the limits of credulity when Jessica convinces herself that it’s true because she sees Steve reading a letter on pink stationery and goes to the mall to interrogate a cashier about who they sold pink stationary to. Despite the cashier absolutely not remembering, Jessica is sure it’s Abbie.

The real reason that Steven’s been upset is not only that he’s legitimately suffering from allergies, but also because he’s started receiving anonymous love letters on the same stationery that Tricia Martin had used before she died. When Jessica and Elizabeth tell him that they think it’s Abbie, they all confront her. It isn’t her, and she cries about the fact that they could ever think she’d do a thing. Then they discover that it’s been Cara sending the letters, trying to add an air of mystery to their relationship (how, I’m still unsure), and then they all go to Abbie’s to apologize for her. Steven and Cara make up.

The B-Plot: The Oracle has seen its readership dip lately, and they decide to drum up interest by running a contest for a comedy column. Amy Sutton applies with a Miss Manners type of feature, and Abbie submits a comic about a girl named Jenny that is apparently very funny. Abbie ends up winning with the help of Elizabeth, and she’s thrilled to join the staff.

Jessica giggled. “Maybe you’re allergic to college. You come home often enough.”

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 3 weeks
– Cara’s fake birthday party
– Comedy contest for The Oracle

– Steven’s college is 45 minutes away in this one. So it’s moved closer.
– Cara holds her fake birthday party at the Marine House
– Abbie’s middle name is Bain
– Steven is found to be allergic to mold, dust, grass, and a bunch of other things

Pop Culture:
– David Letterman
– Johnny Carson
– Miss Manners
– The Lakers and the Celtics

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis)
I mean, no? The stakes here are as low as ever, the way that poor Abbie Richardson is shoe-horned into the world of Sweet Valley despite never having been mentioned before is deeply weird, and she’s honestly too good for all of these goobers. She does really nice things for basically everyone here, and everyone is so quick to turn on her. It sucks.

That said, there’s this wild moment in the stationery store (the Pen and Paper Store – the writers have really given up on naming things) where the clerk says that the purchaser might have been a girl with brown hair, and Jessica is like, “It was absolutely Abbie” and it’s honestly the most unhinged jump to a conclusion I’ve ever seen? Like the way that Jessica did the mental gymnastics to get to there was incredible, and I had the thought that if Jessica were a real person alive today, she’d absolutely be deep into the Q Anon rabbit hole. What a time to be alive!

SVH #43: Hard Choices (Revisited)

26 Jul

“Well, for one thing, I think he asks too many personal questions,” her grandmother said in a hoarse whisper. She cast a glance in the direction of the kitchen. “And the way he drinks – didn’t you notice? I think he’s probably an alcoholic.”

The original cover, circa 1988. Can anyone tell me WHAT Enid is wearing?

Details: Originally published January 1988 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 153 pages.

Summary/Overview: Enid’s excited about her grandmother coming to live with her and her mother Adele. Mrs. Langevin, as she’s referred to throughout the book, is apparently a ton of old lady spunky fun. Both Enid and her mom go out of their way to make Nana feel welcome; Enid even moves her stuff up to the attic so that Nana can have her room on the house’s main floor. But when Mrs. Langevin arrives, she’s a shell of her former self. She’s frail, withdrawn, and needy.

For a while, both Adele and Enid do their best to accommodate her needs. Enid ends up bearing the brunt of this: she has to cancel plans with her boyfriend Hugh and bail on helping Elizabeth with a documentary project (more on that in the B-plot); and things get worse for her when her grandma tells her that Hugh is the wrong boy for her and that all her friends suck.

Things boil over on a Saturday night, when Adele has made plans to attend an important work event with her boyfriend Richard and Enid is supposed to attend the documentary premiere at the Wakefield house. Nana refuses to have a stranger come stay with her and then claims that she can’t be left alone in case she gets sick. Adele tells Enid she’ll have to stay, and that’s when Enid loses it: she blows up at her grandmother and tells her what a holy terror she’s being, and then she rushes off to the premiere.

There, she confides in Elizabeth about what’s been going on and then freaks out about leaving her grandmother alone. When she returns to the house, she’s surprised to find her grandma making cookies. The two eat cookies, have a heart-to-heart, and when Adele arrives back home, Nana announces she’s going back to Chicago. Okay…?

The B-Plot: Jackson Croft, famous film director, has announced a student documentary film contest. Elizabeth decides to enter with a piece called “This is Sweet Valley,” and she enlists the help of Jessica, Jeffrey, and Enid to create the film. They premiere it at the Wakefield’s house to massive success.

Her grandmother held up her hand. “I thought so the other day when they were here, too, but I didn’t want to say anything. Especially that Liz. She seems very bossy to me, ordering everyone around.”

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 3 weeks
– Documentary film contest
– Enid’s nana moves in from Chicago
– Movie premiere/party at the Wakefield house

– The library has a large print book exchange with other libraries in the state
– Jeremy Frank from “Frankly Speaking” gets another shout-out here
– The Droids perform a song called “Meltdown”

Pop Culture:
– Superbowl
– Edward Lear

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis)

I mean, this holds up in terms of being memorable for how incredibly ageist it manages to be while also creating the world’s most annoying grandma. The emotional manipulation that the character Mrs. Langevin engages in is truly something to behold. It’s not subtle, but it is effective in irritating both the characters around her and me, the reader. I wanted to shake the old biddy more than once.

The problem is that the story can’t seem to get consistent about what’s going on. Either Enid and Adele can’t leave her alone, or they can – but the book picks and chooses whenever it’s convenient for the plot. Adele works away from the home all day, and Enid is in school, so ostensibly Mrs. Langevin is home alone then, but leaving her by herself for a few hours while they both attend events on a weekend night is impossible? They can’t leave her alone because she “might” get sick? Excuse me, what?

What’s so funny is that the dramatic tension is already there without this absolutely hackneyed plot point. Enid is feeling strained trying to balance supporting her grandma and having a social life, and Adele is obviously stressed about managing a household, her job, a fairly new relationship, and the arrival of her mother, but the book doesn’t provide any nuance for this and instead just makes Mrs. Langevin into an irrational toddler until she does an abrupt about-face and then…leaves? Will we ever see her again?

SVH #42: Caught in the Middle (Revisited)

19 Jul

“Sandy,” Mrs. Bacon said reproachfully. “They’re completely different! Why do you think they’re having this festival? They want to remind themselves of all the customs they have that keep them separate from the rest of us. They have a different language and different customs. They’re foreigners, not Americans.”

The original cover, circa 1987

Details: Originally published in December 1987 by Bantam Books. Paperback, 138 pages.

Summary/Overview: Sandra Bacon and Manuel Lopez are dating, and everyone at Sweet Valley is into gossiping about the new couple. The problem is that Sandy’s parents are racists (couched here as prejudiced) and hate Mexican people. Sandy hasn’t told her parents that she’s seeing Manuel, and as they get more serious about each other, she struggles with what to do about it.

She stops Liz from running a gossip item about them and enlists the help of her friend Jean West to help her lie to her parents about where she’s spending her time. She tries to broach the subject of dating someone from a different background than her own with her parents a few times, and they tell her that they want her with the right kind (white kind) of person. She doesn’t tell them about Manuel, and Manuel starts to feel pretty hurt about the whole thing.

When Sandy, Manuel, and Liz take the Bacon’s boat out for a ride on Secca Lake, the boat explodes (LOLOLOL) and Sandy is knocked unconscious. Manuel saves her, but when Sandy comes to, she begs him to run away and then begs Liz to pretend she saved her. The entire thing is incredibly YIKES and is made worse by the fact that the Bacons insist that there had to have been foul play involved, and listen to eyewitness accounts that a “Mexican” was seen around the boat before the accident.

Manuel is brought down to the police station for questioning, and then Sandy is brought in to identify him. Terrified that her parents will find out, she tells police she’s never seen him before. Then she crumbles and the whole story comes out. Her parents are fully freaked out about her dating a Mexican but try to be understanding in the moment because he saved her life. Okay…?

The B-Plot: It’s Lila’s birthday (again???) and Jessica is planning a huge surprise party for her. But she doesn’t want Lila to even have an inkling that it’s being planned, so she enlists the help of her friends to pretend like they couldn’t be less interested in Lila’s birthday. It works, and Lila is furious with them. When she arrives at the Wakefields for the party, she’s so surprised!

“What’s going on?” Sergeant James asked. “What’s going on? Sandy, we aren’t playing games here. This is a very serious matter.”

Sweet Valley Social Calendar:
Estimated Elapsed Time: 2-3 weeks
– “Mexican Festival”
– Surprise Party at the Wakefield’s for Lila’s birthday

– The Regina Morrow Scholarship Fund is still a thing
– Sandra’s dad wrote a letter to the editor complaining about immigrants ruining the community
– Sandra’s boat’s named Solar One

Pop Culture:
– Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Does it hold up? (A totally unqualified critical analysis):
Woof. It is wild to read this book in the year of our lord 2022 and think, “Yeah, these people definitely still exist,” and yet it also isn’t. Because we know that they do. They’re out there en masse and they’re loud and proud about it.

Does it really bother me that this book never once uses the word “racist?” Yes it does! There’s one use of the word “bigot” and then the book mostly just uses the word “prejudice” to describe the outright racism that the elder Bacons exhibit. Which I guess makes sense for the time when this was originally published and also the series’ inability to deal with complex topics in any nuanced way, but it still sucks.

Also, can we talk about the white nonsense that Sandra engages in in this book? Asking Manuel to run away after he saves her life? Dissolving into tears when confronted with harsh realities about race? Pretending she doesn’t know Manuel (to his face!) when questioned by the police? And he’s still into her? I simply cannot!

The one bright spot here is that Sweet Valley Police continue to be the absolute worst and hilariously incompetent at their jobs.