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SVH #79: The Long-Lost Brother

7 Apr


Estimated Elapsed Time: 4 weeks


Sara Eastman, a girl we have never heard of before, has a twin brother who got into some trouble back when they all lived in Connecticut.  Now he’s in reform school, Sara and her mom live in Sweet Valley, and she has been lying to everyone about her brother.  She’s told everyone that he’s brilliant but decided to stay back east with their father.  Trouble is, he’s done with reform school and wants to move to Sweet Valley.  Sara is devastated, because she has her whole life set up in Sweet Valley, and it doesn’t involve a delinquent brother.

Oh well, because he moves back and immediately causes problems for Sara in that he’s not thrilled with the lies she’s told about him.  Elizabeth meets him at an A.A. meeting (she’s doing investigative journalism or something), and it doesn’t take long for her to put two-and-two together after she interviews him for the paper.  Tim seems to have genuinely changed, but Sara won’t accept it.

When Crunch McAllister’s van is stolen outside of the Dairi Burger, Tim is the prime suspect, but only because he stole a car when he was high on drugs back in CT? I’m not sure, but whatever.  He’s questioned, he’s released, and the gossip mill at SVH goes into overdrive.  It gets worse after Tim and Crunch get into a fight in the school parking lot.  Now that Tim’s secret past is out, Sara’s douchebag boyfriend drops her like a hot potato and her best friend Amanda Hayes gets mad at her for not being honest about her brother.  Sara is so alone!

It takes several talks with both of her parents, a nosy Elizabeth, Barry at Project Youth, and even several fights with Tim himself before Sara comes around on the whole thing.  Actually, it isn’t until Tim leaves Sara a note saying he’s hopping a plane back east that she finally freaks out enough and begs him to stay.  They reconcile.  Whatever, I’m bored.

The B-Plot involves Elizabeth’s very serious and very didactic investigation into a local battered women’s shelter and her experience attending A.A. and Alateen meetings to gain journalistic credibility.  Oh, and Jessica’s super tired of attending events as Miss Teen Sweet Valley, so Liz goes in her place to hand out cheese cubes at the mall.  I am not joking.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Amanda and Sara both “excel” in modern dance and take classes with Mr. Krezenski
  • Cherry pie is Tim’s favorite dessert. How all-American of him.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Only recently, Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield had made a point of repeating their law regarding the twins’ use of the small red car. If either of them was careless behind the wheel, she would have to hand over the keys and walk until further notice.” (5)
  • What things? she thought miserably. Just a lawbreaking brother who’ll probably have his picture hanging in the post office by the time he’s twenty. And it won’t be because he’s President.” (20)
  • “Elizabeth wasn’t put off.  Like any reporter worth her number-two pencils, she had good instincts about people, and she knew Tim Eastborne was basically a good person.” (73) WTF?

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

It’s hard to care about these books because it’s so clear that we’ve reached a creative lull in the series.  It’s like Bantam thought there weren’t enough secondary characters to handle all the afterschool special plots, so they just kept dumping more characters into the plot.  Apart from the fact that these story lines are so heavy-handed, it’s also hard to connect as a reader to these characters whose appearances are fleeting at best.  I don’t give a shit about Sara’s perceived problems because I don’t ever have to think about her again.

Also, she’s got a martyr complex like you wouldn’t believe, which drives me nuts.  It’s worse than the ham-fisted, bizarre insertion of a PSA about domestic violence that Elizabeth shoves down our throats for the entire book.

SVH #69: Friend Against Friend

7 Mar


Estimated Elapsed Time: 2 weeks


Andy Jenkins is totally one of the gang at Sweet Valley even though the first time we’d ever heard of him was offhandedly in the last book.  He’s also one of the only black students at SVH, but he’s a super good student, especially when it comes to science.  That’s why he’s won a special scholarship to spend the summer studying marine biology at the Monterey Bay Acquarium.  He’s thrilled about this, and so is his friend, Neil Freemount, and his girlfriend, Tracy Gilbert (who the book wants you to know is also black).

Not everyone is super thrilled about Andy’s existence, though.  One day after school, Andy opens his locker and finds all sorts of garbage stuffed in there, as well as a note that says “Go back to Africa where you belong.”  Charlie Cashman is likely the dude behind this stupid, racist prank, because he hassles Andy in the parking lot of the Dairi Burger a few days later, and then Tracy discovers that all four of her tires have been slashed in the parking lot, too.  Neil witnesses all of this but is nervous about pointing fingers, yet he’s also confused as to why Andy doesn’t seem to want to report it.

Secretly, Neil is feeling conflicted about the whole thing.  Charlie Cashman’s father and Neil’s dad both work at Patman Canning, and they both make fairly overtly racist comments about their black supervisor, Willis.  Neil hopes that his dad is just saying these things because of Mr. Cashman, but deep down, he doesn’t believe that to be true.  Things worsen on this front when Mr. Cashman is fired, and Neil’s dad says a bunch more racist things.

What’s more alarming to Neil is that Andy doesn’t seem to want his help.  At one point, Neil tries to suggest that Andy think of what Martin Luther King, Jr. would do in the situation, and Andy (rightfully) loses his shit at him.  The two part ways, and there’s genuine tension on both ends.  Neil feels like Andy is being racist towards whites; they can’t all be bad, right?  This angers him, and he starts to resent how Andy shuts him out.

Things continue to escalate: Charlie purposely trips Andy in the hall and makes some stupid comments.  The two boys fight, and Mr. Collins breaks it up.  He pulls Neil aside and asks if Charlie started it because Andy is black, and Neil sort of shrugs his way out of the situation.  He feels increasing resentment about his perceived persecution by Andy.

The culmination of these increasingly violent acts comes when Neil and Penny see a movie and are leaving the theater one night.  They see Andy’s father’s car being attacked by Charlie and his gang, and then, when Penny goes to call the police, Neil watches in horror as they pull Andy out of the car and start beating him.  Neil runs over to save the unconscious Andy, but instead ends up hitting him, just once, after being pressured by the group to do so.  He immediately flees the scene and then lies to protect himself.

When Neil finally comes clean, it’s because Charlie Cashman has basically blackmailed or threatened him to lie about it, and he can’t live with the guilt any more.  He comes clean in the cafeteria one day, after Andy has apologized for being angry, and everyone is appalled that Neil could ever do such a thing.  It’s clear that his friendship with Andy is over, and it looks like his relationship with Penny, too.

Andy is walking home from school and is being trailed by Charlie and his gang.  While he doesn’t see them, Neil does, and he runs over to stand with Andy, despite the fact that Andy clearly hates him.  Presented with Neil and Andy, Charlie and his gang back down.

The B-Plot is nearly non-existent but basically serves to further the plot about the racist shit happening at SVH and set up the plot for the next book about a female quarterback.  Liz asks students what they’d like to change about their school and is SHOCKED when they have serious answers for her about racism, sexism, and other stuff that’s hard to think about.

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • Things to change at SVH: Olivia wants 3-day school weeks; Penny wants to outlaw Pi Beta Alpha, Manuel wants a non-white perspective of history; Jade Wu wants pizza ovens (?); Dana wants less focus on boys’ sports; and someone wants girls to be able to try out for the football team.
  • Mr. Archer is the marine biology teacher at SVH, Miss Jacobi is the sociology teacher.
  • Neil and Charlie listen to the Rolling Stones in his car

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Privately, Elizabeth had thought of it as just a fun thing to do.  More soft drink machines, shorter classes, better food in the cafeteria: those were the responses she had expected.  But maybe there was more dissatisfaction at Sweet Valley High than she thought.” (7)
  • “It was almost as if Andy held a grudge against every single student at Sweet Valley High because of Charlie’s bigotry. It was true that many of them hadn’t ever faced real hardships or discrimination, but that didn’t make them terrible people.” (40)
  • “‘Everyone is completely shocked,’ Penny continued.  ‘I just can’t believe something like that could happen here. I thought it only happened in big cities, like New York or L.A., but I guess I was naive.'” (84) HAS EVERYONE LOST THEIR DAMN MIND?

A (Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

This was a hard book to recap, and it’s actually a hard one to write a critical analysis of, too.  It’s like so many other books that are published about hard stuff like racism and racialized violence and white guilt: well-meaning, completely misguided, and about as subtle as an anvil.  There’s also the fact that this book was written in 1990, which means that the lens we view it through now is fairly different.

Some thoughts, in bullet points because why not?

  • This is a classic case of a story about racism being told through the eyes of a white person.  What’s interesting here is that unlike many of the other books in the series, we never spend a minute inside Andy’s head, despite the fact that we are inside both Neil and Elizabeth’s heads at several points, as well as Penny’s.  So, we spend a lot of time being taught about racism but never actually hear from anyone experiencing it.
  • There’s a scene in which the sociology teacher tries a social experiment on her class, treating those with light-colored eyes as second-class citizens in an attempt to teach them about discrimination.  Again: well-meaning, but totally fucked up.  All these white kids get to go back to being the dominant majority as soon as the class is over.  Are we, as readers, supposed to feel bad for Jessica because she’s uncomfortable for a class period?  How can this possibly compare to a lifetime of living it?
  • Throughout the book, there are several mentions of feeling guilt over being privileged.  This is white guilt, and it’s very real–but it’s never named or explored.  And why would it be?  This is Sweet Valley.
  • When Andy apologizes to Neil for being angry, my jaw actually dropped.  It takes a lot to shock me when it comes to these books, but it was one of those moments that was so misplaced and so incredibly wrong (and I’m speaking of being unintentionally wrong, because it’s clear that both the reader and Neil are supposed to see  this as the right thing for Andy to do) that it defies logic.  Andy should be angry.  He has every right to be.  And to have him apologize for it?  Sends. The. Wrong. Message.

Look, I understand that this is a Sweet Valley High novel, and it’s not supposed to be super great literature or provide its readers a really nuanced, in-depth look at structural racism.  It can’t have been easy to be that ghost writer writing this didactic novel about racism that’s supposed to leave its readers (especially the white ones, and maybe only the white ones) feeling good about they know racism is bad.

I need something to cleanse my brain after this one, and I somehow doubt it’s going to be SVH #70: Ms. Quarterback.

SVH #54: Two-Boy Weekend

17 Jun

Estimated Elapsed Time: 3 weeks


A.J. Morgan’s grandparents are having a 50th anniversary celebration, so his family is flying down on Wednesday night and coming back Sunday afternoon.  Jessica is despondent at the idea of an entire weekend without A.J., and she essentially mopes and sulks about it before he leaves.  The only thing that keeps her from falling apart completely is  that he’s won a Samaritan essay contest that allows him to be the King of the Citizen’s Ball, making Jessica the de facto Queen.  Once he’s gone, she does some more moping.  Apparently she can’t do anything without A.J., which means missing Ken Matthews’s party.

At the beach on Friday, Jessica complains some more about how depressed she is.  Her friends are fed up with her oh-woe-is-me attitude and go to the Dairi Burger.  Jessica stays at the beach by herself, where she meets surfer cutie Christopher, who promptly asks her out.  Even though Jessica feels guilt over seeing another boy while A.J. is away, it doesn’t stop her from going out with him.

The two have a romantic dinner that night and then spend the entire next day together at the aquarium/planetarium.  They have a lovely time.  On Sunday morning, she meets Christopher at the beach and tells him she can’t see him anymore because she has a boyfriend.  Christopher is understanding, and Jessica thinks she’s dodged a bullet.

But she hasn’t.  When she meets up with A.J., she’s a total freak, acting spacey and cagey and totally guilty.  When Christopher starts calling her, begging to be friends, she doesn’t know what to do.  She pleads with him to stop, but he won’t give up.   He continues to call and stalk her.  When he shows up to look at the car that A.J. has for sale, he pretends not to know Jessica.  A.J. has to take a call right when Christopher wants to take a test drive, so Jessica is forced to go along.  Christopher drives recklessly and aims right at the side of a building until Jessica agrees to go out with him again.

Even after confiding in Elizabeth about what’s been happening, Jessica refuses to tell A.J. because she wants to be the queen of the Citizen’s Day Ball.  Elizabeth thinks this is a mistake, but doesn’t say anything.  The night of the ball, Jessica calls Christopher and pretends she’s sick.  He seems to buy it, so she goes off to the dance.  Of course, Christopher shows up, mistakes Elizabeth for Jessica, and kidnaps her.  He stuffs her into the trunk of his car and takes off.

Jessica feels like something is wrong and gets Jeffrey to help her look for them.  She runs in front of Christopher’s car.  He seems to think that she managed to get out of the trunk (I don’t get this part either) and stops the car.  Jeffrey fights with him while Jess unties Elizabeth.  They are saved!

Back at the ball, A.J. finishes reading his essay.  Jessica confesses to him that she isn’t ready to date just one boy, and the two break up.  A.J. still wants her to be his queen, though, and the two share a dance.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “Jessica felt like a heroine in a tragic, dramatic love story.  She lifted her chin and turned away.  It was all over.” (47)
  • “Both girls had telephones in their rooms because they got so many calls.” (72)
  • “Flirtatious boys exasperated her.” (91)

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • A.J. is selling his car for $500.
  • Elizabeth’s little sister is named Kim Novak.  Isn’t…isn’t that the name of a famous actress?
  • When Elizabeth takes Kim to the bookstore, she recommends Johnny Tremain.  It’s official: Elizabeth Wakefield is the WORST.

(Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

Isn’t there an unspoken code in Sweet Valley regarding cheating?  Like, if your significant other isn’t in the same zip code as you, all’s fair?  Hasn’t that been how it’s worked in virtually every other book?  When the twins go on vacation, they cheat on their beaus.  When their boyfriends are away for the summer, they cheat on them.  We have book after book of solid evidence backing this theory up, so you can imagine how confused I was when the ghostwriter tried to play up Jessica’s guilt regarding cheating on A.J. in this book.

I’m sorry, what?

A.J. is gone for four days.  In those four days, Jessica meets a new boy, goes on several dates with him, and ends up being pretty infatuated with him, at least until he lets his freak flag fly.  This isn’t so surprising, really, given her past behavior, but what is strange is how guilty the ghostwriter makes her feel, as if this is new for Jessica.  Talk about serious character decay.

Also, can we talk for a second about how totally bland Christopher is, as far as psychopaths go?  He has no personality, and the best he can do is pull a knife on Liz and stuff her in the trunk of his convertible?  Really?  Not your best work, Sweet Valley.

SVH #35: Out of Control

2 Oct

Estimated Time Elapsed: 2 weeks


Lately, Aaron Dallas has been blowing up at everyone over seemingly little things.  Everyone is getting fed up with his short temper and is questioning whether he’s going through something or he’s just a really big douche bag.  The only people who seem to be standing by him are his best friend, Jeffrey French, and his girlfriend, sophomore Heather Sanford.  Elizabeth doesn’t understand Jeffrey’s unfailing loyalty to Aaron and she thinks Heather is a total airhead.  This is as mean as readers have ever seen Elizabeth, because she’s flat-out rude to Heather, cutting her off, rolling her eyes, and doing cruel imitations of her in front of her friends.

Aaron’s behavior causes problems between Elizabeth and Jeffrey, who can’t seem to agree about what’s happening.  Jeffrey rationalizes that Aaron is acting out because his parents are going through a nasty divorce.  Elizabeth that while it’s terrible that he’s having trouble with his parents getting divorced, it’s no excuse for his behavior, especially after he snaps and hits a soccer teammate.  The coach warns him that another outburst will get him booted from the team.  This must be pre-zero-tolerance, because where I come from, one attack would be the end for any player.  Liz writes an article about the incident, knowing that she’s going to piss off Aaron and Jeffrey.  She’s staying true to her serious newspaper reporter duties, I guess.

When the article comes out, Aaron won’t speak to Liz.  Jeffrey’s pissed, too.  Only Heather seems to be on Elizabeth’s side, telling her that she thinks it might be the catalyst for Aaron to get help.  Liz realizes that she’s misjudged Heather and feels bad.  When Aaron and Elizabeth run into each other in the cafeteria, Jeffrey asks him to get over it, and Aaron freaks out and punches Jeffrey.  Heather confronts Aaron and begs him to get help.  After seeing the guidance counselor, who gives him the number of a therapist for him and his father, Aaron manages to get back on the soccer team just in time for the big game against Big Mesa, which SVH promptly wins.

The B-Plot is in many ways more interesting than the A-plot.  Jessica has decided that her new get-rich-quick plan involves selling Tofu-Glo products.  She holds a party at her house for all the Pi Beta Alpha girls and sells a ton of the stuff.  The only problem is, she promises a money-back guarantee on the stuff, and she doesn’t realize that the products need to be refrigerated, so when she starts getting complaints about the products smelling and doing awful things, she realizes she’s totally screwed.  She cries a lot and has to buy it all back.  The company won’t refund her money, and then she has to have it all hauled away by a trash collector.  Jessica laments how she’ll never be able to pay Elizabeth and her parents back until her dad tells her that he did some research and found out the company wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up, and so she’s going to get a settlement from a lawsuit.

Memorable Quotes:

  • “‘Oh, you poor thing,’ Elizabeth said, teasing her.  ‘Remember, you had your chance.’  When Jeffrey had first moved to town, Elizabeth concocted a scheme to fix Enid up with him.  The plan had backfired, but Enid hadn’t minded at all.” (11) [Blogger’s note: That’s not how I remember it, Liz.]

Trivia/Fun Facts:

  • The Tofu-Glo products include Tofu-Shampoo, Soya-Soft, and Soya-Life Diet Supplement.  The idea that anyone would want to rub soybeans all over themselves amuses me greatly.
  • The ingredients list of the products include PABA, which is something that I was allergic to as a child.  I remember reading this and FREAKING OUT about the fact that my one allergy was included in a Sweet Valley High novel.  It’s the little things, you know.
  • Heather Sanford makes most of her own clothes and is totally fashionable, but she maintains her figure by drinking a lot of Diet Coke.

(Totally Unqualified) Critical Analysis:

The thing that has always stood out to me about this book is how completely awful Elizabeth is to Heather.  To say that it’s uncharacteristic is an understatement because of the sheer amount of hostility Elizabeth seems to hold for the girl.  Considering the fact that Elizabeth is usually kind to even the most pathetic (and often irritating) characters of Sweet Valley, it is especially jarring.  After all, she tried to be kind to Betsy Martin, a character whom I find completely antagonistic and irredeemable.  She prides herself on finding the good in people and being a patient and kind listener, but she won’t even give Heather a shot even though Heather is never anything but genuine and nice to her.

When she goes on double date with Heather and Aaron, she is irritated by Heather’s comments during the movie.  When Heather tries to talk to her about the film afterward, she snarks about how annoying it is that Heather only wants to talk about clothes and Aaron.  She prickles at the phrase “girl talk,” doesn’t listen when Heather talks, and is absolutely horrified when Heather speaks in baby talk to Aaron in order to calm him down.  While I agree that baby talk spoken earnestly is faintly embarrassing, what Elizabeth fails to see is how it’s Heather’s way of coping with Aaron’s temper.  Heather is embarrassed by it as well, but Aaron thinks it’s cute, and it’s more embarrassing to be dating an asshole who blows up at the smallest things and can’t let things go.

It’s only after Heather tells her that she agrees with her that Elizabeth thinks that maybe she misjudged her.  Elizabeth needed this validation in order to see the good in Heather?  I don’t accept that.  That’s bullshit, and it’s lazy writing.  Oftentimes I feel sympathetic to Elizabeth, but not this time.