Friday, November 11, 2011

The Sweet Valley High Project #1: Double Love

Did you know I once had another blog?  It's true.  And on this other blog, I made it my mission to reread all the Sweet Valley High books and try to figure out why I loved them so much.  As this is the YA Department, it seems only appropriate to repost these explorations here.  So without further ado, I present The Sweet Valley High Project:
In which I reread every Sweet Vally High book and provide thoughtful insight into and analysis of the various anecdotes of the Wakefields, Patmans, Fowlers, and other famed denizens of Sweet Valley, California.

Growing up, I loved reading Sweet Valley High books.  I loved the cheesy plots, the clunky dialogue, and the misty 70's-style cover art. But why, even now, as an adult, so I still feel the pull of the Wakefield twins?  This is the question I hope to answer by rereading every single SVH book.

Episode 1: Double Love.

The book opens with a description of Elizabeth and Jessica: blond hair, eyes the blue of the Caribbean, perfect size-six figures.  This identical description is repeated at the beginning of every single book in the series.  Along with the fact that Elizabeth is bookish and shy and Jessica popular and outgoing, their beauty is their most important defining characteristic.  Find another Sweet Valley fan, and no matter how old she is, how long since she read her last Sweet Valley book, she will be able to recite the description of the twins, including their gold lavaliere necklaces that were a gift from their parents for their sixteenth birthday, and the only difference between them: the tiny birthmark on Elizabeth's right shoulder. And of course she won't forget the Wakefield's perfect size six figures.  These repeated descriptions have been seared into her soul.

Beyond their beauty, their personalities kind of suck; Jessica is a bitch and Elizabeth is a doormat.  But these personality issues make reading about the twins as satisfying as watching a juicy episode of reality television.

Jessica freaks out when her mom won't let her drive to school (the fact that she doesn't have her license is just a minor detail to her).  At school, Jessica throws another tantrum when Elizabeth won't let her drive into the parking lot.  As readers, it is fun to shake our heads judgmentally at Jessica's bad behavior, to roll our eyes when Elizabeth feels bad that she has upset her sister.

The characters in Sweet Valley High are judging each other just as viciously as we are judging them. Double Love was published in 1984, but the old-fashioned social modes in which they function suggest an earlier time period.  When Jessica gets into trouble with the police, she pretends to be Elizabeth. As a result, everyone thinks that it is Elizabeth running wild with Rick Andover, and Todd does not think he can forgive her for such behavior.  Not because she was with another guy, but because she was acting like a "bad girl."

Similarly, Steven Wakefield, older brother of the twins, almost loses his true love Tricia Martin because he puts too much stock in her family's bad reputation.  What is this, the 50's?  The 1850's?

The overblown language certainly suggests the kind of silly romantic novel that made many Western men in the 1800s look down upon the novel as a form for women (as if that was an insult).  When Todd asks Elizabeth about the chemistry homework, Elizabeth smiles because of the "special chemistry between Todd and her."  Today, I read those words and laugh.  But at 10 years old, I'm sure I read them wistfully and longed for a day when I too would have "special chemistry" with someone.

The true draw of the SVH books, both when I was young and now, are the addictively frustrating plots.  At the beginning of Double Love, Todd tells Elizabeth he has something to ask her.  Everyone in the entire world, except for Elizabeth Wakefield, knows that Todd is about to ask her to the dance.  But then the bell rings and he doesn't.  This is agonizing, because the entire book is going to be a series of miscommunications between Todd and Elizabeth that could have been completely avoided if Todd had just decided that he could be late to first period and asked Elizabeth to the dance!

Every book follows the same plot arc: the characters are established and their desires are presented (e.g., Elizabeth likes Todd and wants to go to the dance with him); next, there is an initial misunderstanding that prevents the desired event from taking place (Elizabeth is supposed to meet Todd after school so he can ask her to the dance but evil Jessica swoops in and tells Todd that Elizabeth has already left with a crowd of people and she probably forgot all about Todd because she is such a "social butterfly"); a series of misunderstandings follow, each larger and more frustrating than the last (e.g., Jessica feebly tries to tell Todd the truth about who was really out at the bar with Rick Andover that night, but Todd is so pigheadedly lodged in his belief that Elizabeth is a hussy that he thinks Jessica is just lying to be a good sister); finally, the long series of painful misunderstandings is resolved by a beautiful, air-clearing moment of realization, when the characters see what dopes they have been for the entire span of time during which the book takes place (Rick Andover forces Jessica and Elizabeth, or as he calls them, "heaven and her sister heavenly," to go to a bar with him, and Todd rescues them and then Elizabeth kisses him).

Toward the end of every SVH book, order is restored, all is right in the high school jungle.  Until the very end, when some crisis that has been brewing in the background suddenly pops to the surface and is followed by the tantalizing words "To be continued."

For example, Enid shows up at the Wakefield house crying and telling Elizabeth that something terrible has happened and her boyfriend Ronnie is going to hate her and she is afraid she is going to lose everything.  To be continued......

This ensures that the reader, filled with the desire to know what will happen to Enid, will buy the next book.  This is the great SVH paradox.  Even though I know that in book 2, Enid will go through a series of misunderstandings followed by the inevitable clarification that sets things right, just as Elizabeth did in book 1, I still want to read it.

Next time: Will Enid's reputation be ruined?  Will Elizabeth and Todd say really dorky and embarrassing things to each other?  Will I read Book 2 on the train without a book cover? To find out, tune in to the next chapter of The Sweet Valley High Project: Secrets!

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