Blonde and Blonder: on Sweet Valley High

The Lumiere Reader, November 11, 2011


What is Sweet Valley? — a mythical place, an American dream, an idea, an ideal, or just the caramel dip between Jessica Wakefield’s thighs? There was a time in my life when I read Sweet Valley High and I read it as much for the covers as for what happened inside.

The books were designed to be judged by their covers, just as Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield were nothing, if they weren’t blonde and beautiful. Illustrator, James L. Mathewuse, created the iconic paintings of the aqua-eyed, sweet sixteen-year-old twins we remember so well. “Sometimes the story requires a literal illustration,” Mathewuse said in an article with Tallahassee magazine. “Other times I try to be symbolic. But in a young teenage romance novel, a symbolic cover is probably over the teenagers’ heads—if you know what I mean.” We do know what he means. Sweet Valley sold millions of copies and had many spin offs, chronicling the fate of Elizabeth and Jessica pre- and post-high school and also delivering bumper holiday special editions.

Set in California, the literary lineage of Francine Pascal occupies a place in my imagination somewhere between The Days of our Lives and Valley of the Dolls. SVH is an Aga saga in fluorescent ankle socks. Pascal had originally planned to sell the idea as a daytime drama featuring teenage characters and it did eventually end up on TV. “The trick is to think of Elizabeth and Jessica as the good and bad sides of one person,” Pascal explains on the promotional website for new book Sweet Valley Confidential.

Indeed. Elizabeth and Jessica are identical twins but that’s where the similarity ends. Elizabeth is the classic goodie two-shoes, all about cardigans and caring. On the book covers Elizabeth often has her hair pinned back and one hand resting on some hapless teenager’s shoulder. She’s our conscience, always tenderly pricked.

Jessica’s the dose of danger, the turn of the screw, the relentless driver of countless plots. She represented the feckless, brutal spirit of a high school bitch. Pascal makes it apparent in every book that Jessica doesn’t like ugly. She’s a walking cliché and a cheerleader to boot, yet Jessica never seemed that unrealistic to me. Her character is part of a long line of Femme Fatales, from Jessica Rabbit to Margaret Atwood’s Xenia in The Robber Bride. Sweet Valley would have ceased to exist without Jessica. It would have had to pack up its pom poms and go home.

Sweet Valley would have ceased to exist without Jessica. It would have had to pack up its pom poms and go home.

 First published in 1983, the series shared its original cultural landscape with Brat Pack teen classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. But Sweet Valley was always—well, sweeter. It was less knowing, less ripe with the real world than even the PG romance between Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink.

And now, three decades after the first book was published, the franchise is back. It was with a strong sense of mischief that I picked up Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later. What will have happened to Elizabeth and Jessica now they are grown up? 27 probably felt like an age safe enough to preserve the integrity of the series, the twins are definitely older, but not (gasp) too old. I’d be interested to know what the heck happens to them at 44 (technically that’s how old they should be), but I guess that’s another story.

My expectations were pretty low and I wasn’t disappointed. I didn’t expect the writing to be nimble and zesty. It wasn’t. The prose plods along like a donkey drawing a well worn cart. Apparently Pascal wrote this novel herself, rather than calling in her fabled team of ghost writers. You go girl. The novel reads like a botched high school reunion—but that’s its marketing appeal. Especially the last few pages that list a raft of characters, their fate summed up in sound bites: e.g. strong swimmer, Bill Chase, was attacked by a shark while competing in a triathlon and lost his leg below the knee. Kapow!

The novel has plenty of twists and turns, reversals and complications abound. But it’s more or less what I knew it would be. The worst thing that can still happen in your life at 27 is rejection by the boy (now the man) that you love. The even worse thing that can happen is that he now loves your sister. Let’s be fair, this is pretty horrible. If I was Elizabeth I wouldn’t have got over being dumped by Todd Wilkins by the end of the novel. I would not have attended his wedding with Jessica and I think I could have strung out a life time of hatred.

While a few other characters are peppered throughout, especially in New York where Elizabeth is ‘living’ her dream of becoming a bonafide journalist, or at least a theatre reviewer, the book is thin on the ground when it comes to the original Sweet Valley friends. I could have done with more probing into the fate of poor little rich girl, Lila Fowler. I would have loved to have heard her marital advice to Jessica. I needed a girl’s night out. Enid Rollins has turned into a bitch and Elizabeth is best friends with playboy Bruce Patman, now as placid as a teddy bear following the death of his parents. One blogger makes a series of great Bruce Patman/Bruce Wayne/Batman analogies, and there is a resemblance.

Still, the point about SVH is that it was always bad. That’s why we love it and Sweet Valley Confidential stays true to form. It also sports my favorite line of the year: She cried after every orgasm. Elizabeth of course, who else? There’s another superb moment when Alice (the twins’ mother who still looks like their older sister) yells “Ned, bring out the fucking cake!” I sense Pascal struggling with modernity, like a girdle. Scant references are made to Twitter and Beyonce, yet this attempt to place the Wakefield’s in the future feels stillborn.

The biggest corker is of course Stephen Wakefield who is now—wait for it—gay. Stephen shacking up with ex-footballer Aaron Dallas reads like a pretty shameless attempt to give the plot more rigor—or should I say muscle? Once a sexuality switch would have been at least the subject of an entire book (and I would have paid to see the loving couple clutching one another in that cover). Now, Stephen’s sudden gayness is a mere chapter and he’s automatically accepted. Where was the Sweet Valley High that chided a girl for riding on a boy’s motorcycle; what about the moral lessons of ‘Easy Annie’ who needed a loving boyfriend to teach her self respect? And least we forget the fate of Regina Morrow who had a line of coke at a party and died for it. Francine has abandoned us. Or perhaps we’ve all grown up?

What’s interesting about Sweet Valley Confidential is that it has a right to exist at all. And that is of course down to the fans. There’s a whole generation of us who grew up on these books and are now making art about it. Not least of all the bloggers: a bunch of women, my age-ish. All with a sense of humour, aspiring writers no doubt. We’re the women who secretly wanted to be Jessica but related more to the polite restraint of Elizabeth. (Take the test on the website: 49% of us are Elizabeth, only 27% are Jessica.) We’re the ironic fans, the Gen-Xers. Did we ever fully believe in the openly aspirational world of Sweet Valley?

Part of the problem for Sweet Valley Confidential is that the Wakefield twins no longer stand up in a world that’s gone Glee. The shallow blonde archetype of the cheerleader is too well known. Francine Pascal milked the blonde doppelganger trope back before it became a cliché. I can’t look at the covers as an adult without picking up all sorts of Playboy undertones. The passivity of Elizabeth and the masochism of Jessica seems more like an S&M fantasy. I can easily imagine Elizabeth blindfolded and sitting in the back seat of a cab being driven towards an isolated manor just like the heroine in The Story of O… or maybe I am thinking of Fifty Shades of Grey? The difference in Sweet Valley is that no-one went all the way. The series eased young girls into the shallow end of sex with gently titillating titles like Playing with FireAll Night Long, and Two Boy Weekend. One SVH blogger clearly defined the readers as tweenage girls, not yet thirteen, and I had an epiphany: Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield were the high school seniors, seen driving into school, the faint sheen of adulthood already upon them. In third form we gossiped shamelessly about the good looking seniors and speculated about their relationships—the issue of sex as epic as an encounter with Darth Vader. (Nicely depicted in Revenge of the Nerds, where a nerd gets off with a cheerleader who doesn’t recognise his staccato breathing through a Darth Vader mask.)

Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are our failed goddesses. The women we never became. The first poem I ever published in Landfall was called: Ode to Sweet Valley High, and my early friendship with artist Yvonne Todd was forged over memories of the book covers—Todd describes the cover-art as “visual cocaine.” One afternoon we circled a suburb saturated in afternoon sunlight, finally arriving at the house to exhume a box of SVH books from a garage sale. At that time we were planning to turn the books into our own art and years later Todd di produce ‘Approximation of Tricia Martin.’ Poor Tricia, who died tragically young of leukemia—never living to see her ex Steven Wakefield with his new male lover. Maybe it was for the best? (Francine probably felt the new novel needed the pink pound. Perhaps gays are a large part of the target audience?)

And what of us? The bloggers? The mocking fans. By now we’ve all come to terms with our own beauty—or lack of it. The quality and quips of the writing out there make me think the market’s ready for a new genre: the satirical romance. I used to assume SVH was unintentionally hilarious. But titles like Don’t Go Gome with John and Beware the Babysitter have me questioning myself.  Maybe Francine does have a sense of humour? And who knows what the ghost writers talked about? I like to imagine them working together, a board room of middle aged hacks, pumping out angst in between cigarettes and visits to the snack machine. They probably had a high school history on the wall just so everyone didn’t get too confused about who had already dated who. I can hear their hardened laughter and it sounds a lot like my own.

Sweet Valley Confidential is the footnote to a pop cultural masterpiece. For a generation of women, the Wakefield twins are part of the dream time now. Elizabeth and Jessica stare out of the cover art like mirror images returning our gaze. They have left our lives just a little bit blonder and I’ll always love them for that.