Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Sweet Valley High Project #2: Secrets

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. (This post originally appeared on my previous blog, I Love/ Hate Celebrities, which is no longer active.)

Episode #2: Secrets

Sweet Valley High book 2 starts exactly the same way book 1 did: with drop-dead gorgeous Wakefield twin Jessica complaining about how hideous she is. But Jessica is not actually worried about her appearance; she's just fishing for compliments, which her "best friend" Cara Walker obligingly provides. I say "best friend" because we are told that the reasons Jessica likes Cara are that 1) Cara loves gossip even more than Jessica does, and 2) Cara is really pretty, but not quite as pretty as Jessica Wakefield. Well duh, I mean, she's a brunette. It's weird to read this early caricature of Cara Walker in light of who she becomes later in the series, but lets not get ahead of ourselves. For now, Cara is the girl who loves gossip. Period. But Caroline Pierce is also the girl who loves gossip, period. At this early stage, the only detectable difference between Cara Walker and Caroline Pierce is the fact that neither Jessica nor Elizabeth like Caroline Pierce.

But back to what everyone really cares about: Jessica. We get the usual rote descriptions about Jessica's gorgeous hair and eyes. In this book, her twin Elizabeth never gets a description of her own "all-American good looks," but her character feels much fuller than Jessica's and certainly more pleasant to spend time with. She is so nice and considerate that even when her friend Enid is furious with Elizabeth for something that she did not do, instead of trying to prove her innocence, Elizabeth worries about how awful Enid must be feeling. Elizabeth is also a deep and thoughtful person. At one point in the book, she talks to hopelessly dorky Winston Egbert and realizes that despite his inability to keep his mouth shut, he is actually a lovely person.

At this stage of the series, Jessica would never have a realization like that. She is almost a foil for Elizabeth, the evil to Liz's good. She doesn't consider her actions, she simply goes after what she wants, which in this book is to be prom queen so that spoiled, nasty Bruce Patman will notice her. Jessica says she wants him because he is rich and good-looking (and because he drives a black Porsche), but the real reason seems to be that he is the only guy in school not visibly panting after her. This bothers her so much that she is willing to ruin Enid's life in order to win prom queen. She finds a letter from a boy named George addressed to Enid, and slips it into the locker of Enid's boyfriend Ronnie. We the readers already know about George because Enid has confided in Elizabeth. When Enid's parents got divorced she was depressed and angry. She started hanging out with George, who was also depressed and angry, and they did lost of drugs together and rode around high in George's GTO. One day they hit a little boy. Thankfully, they didn't kill him, but the incident scared Enid straight. She was put on probation and enrolled in a drug treatment program. George was sent away to a strict boarding school. Enid wrote George letters to give him hope that he could get better like she had. But now George is coming back home to Sweet Valley and Enid is scared that Ronnie will find out about the letters and about her past and break up with her.

This story raises some questions. First of all, Sweet Valley isn't a tiny town, but it also isn't a metropolis. If this book and the last book are to be believed, the "rumor mongers" of Sweet Valley are insatiable in their thirst for a good story. So how come nobody knows about Enid's druggie ex-boyfriend past? When I was younger, I always thought that Enid had moved to Sweet Valley from another town to escape her checkered past. Now I realize that I must have made that up because it doesn't make any sense. People can't just be cruising around on drugs all the time without someone noticing! But who cares about believability when you can lazily paste a stock morality tale onto an otherwise boring character to spice her up a bit. Enid's back story is straight out of the 1950's, and so is her boyfriend Ronnie's reaction. He immediately decides that Enid is a fallen woman and becomes sexually rough with her (i.e., kisses her too hard and grabs her arm), demanding that she "give him" what she's been "giving to George." What a douche. 

Of course, Enid truly is a good person and so she is allowed to be redeemed. SVH's version of redemption? A hot boy. George shows up looking really good and takes Enid to the dance. Also he is not on drugs anymore and is going to SV University. After a week or so of being shunned she has now achieved a feat that will place her at the top of the high school totem pole: dating a college man. He buys her an orchid corsage and they make out. Balm for Enid's long-suffering soul.

As should be obvious by now, Secrets follows the same plot arc as SVH #1 Double Love

1) A main character has a problem (George is coming home and Enid doesn't want Ronnie to find out).
2) The problem leads to a misunderstanding (Ronnie finds out and Enid blames Elizabeth). 
3) The misunderstanding is cleared up (Enid and Elizabeth talk and happily make up). 

But unlike SVH #1, where the tension builds as the reader eagerly awaits the moment when the misunderstanding will be cleared up and Todd will finally ask out Elizabeth, the reder is tense while reading Secrets because how the heck does Elizabeth not realize that her beloved sister Jessica is a sociopath? That's right, I said it, a sociopath. Jessica finds a personal letter to Enid and not only reads it but puts it into Ronnie's locker so that he will break up with Enid. This is necessary because Ronnie is the chair of the dance committee and both Enid and Jessica are running for queen. (Wait a minute, aren't seniors usually queen? Are there even any seniors in this school? Would Enid really be the type of person to run for dance queen? Well, whatever.) If Ronnie is no longer going out with Enid, he will no longer attempt to sway people to vote for her, which, apparently, the head of the dance committee has the power to do. So basically Jessica ruins Enid's life based on bizarre and faulty logic. But Jessica doesn't just engineer the Enid-Ronnie break-up, she also hints to Enid that it was Elizabeth who spilled the beans about George, and she takes Ronnie to the dance herself, ostensibly to try to help Enid somehow. Elizabeth buys this excuse when Jessica rambles on about all the sacrifices she is making. Come on Elizabeth, do you really believe that? Perhaps you would also like to buy a few thousand shares of this new stock venture I am working on? You see, money trickles down from the top to the bottom, almost, you might say, in the shape of a pyramid.....

I want to believe that Jessica is simply a social genius who realizes that high school relationships and even reputations are not really that important in the long run so it doesn't matter if she ruins them. But wait.....Jessica is doing all of this for the sake of a high school romance with Bruce Patman! And who cares about reputation more than Jessica Wakefield? There goes that theory. Hmmm.....disregard for common social rules and norms such as respecting other's privacy? Check. Indifference to the feelings of others? Check. Total lack of empathy for the pain of others? Check. Yup, she's a sociopath.

Finally, Alice Wakefield, aka, the twins' mom, aka, deus ex machina, steps in and makes the twins clean their rooms before the dance. Elizabeth finally finds Enid's letter on the floor and realizes what Jessica has been up to. As in the end of the first book, Elizabeth quickly concocts a harmless scheme that will humiliate Jessica but is not really that mean. She tells Caroline Pierce, the other gossip queen, that Jessica has finally realized her love for Winston Egbert and that everyone should vote for him for dance king so that they can be together. Needless to say, Jessica is not amused and thinks that she has been punished more than she deserves. But at least she has learned her lesson.

Or has she?! Secrets ends with Jessica Wakefield locking eyes with Bruce Patman, thrilling as his slimy eyes violate her virginal body, and wondering if there is a chance for them after all. Guess we'll have to wait to find out in SVH #3, Playing With Fire!

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