Michelle Kelly, on making the journey back to Sweet Valley as an adult. 


“When they hit downtown Sweet Valley it was closed up tight. The main street was almost empty except for some shopkeepers hosing down the front of their shops. Without the girls in UGGs and the guys in jeans, it could be right out of an old MGM movie of a small mid-twentieth-century town in the Midwest, where everything was clean and safe. And happy.”

Welcome to Sweet Valley, California. A decade after the high school days of the glorious Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, it seems not much has changed. But as some sage teen never said: as it is in Sweet Valley, so it shall be in life (ha!), and this vision of tranquillity is but a brief illusion. The faux wholesome scene is from Sweet Valley Confidential, a 2011 sequel to the multiple children and young adult book series which followed Elizabeth and Jessica on their escapades, including – but not limited to – Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley University, and the 1980s’ original and iconic Sweet Valley High.

SVH? I guzzled those books; inhaled them whole. There was a time when the Wakefields’ France was the only France I knew (Super Edition #3: Spring Break); when their summer vacations were interwoven with mine (Super Edition #4: Malibu Summer, an incomparable source of LA dreaming in a Crescent Head caravan park). I still rate the day when a generous classmate gave me a bagful of her sister’s unwanted SVHs as a lifetime highlight. And, like Elizabeth in Confidential, I moved away from my hometown as a young adult and felt like an outsider whenever I returned. So for all kinds of reasons the image of Sweet Valley’s austere, quietening main street sends my nostalgia synapses into overdrive.

In contrast to the Arcadian vision of downtown, the everyday worlds of Elizabeth and Jessica in Confidential have gotten smaller, harder, savvier, and more unforgiving. We reconnect with Elizabeth in New York. Her tiny cramped apartment has the feel of Alice-down-the-Rabbit-Hole, accustomed as we are to seeing the sisters float through spacious West Coast split-level houses. And while Liz’s immediate surroundings may have contracted, other avenues have definitely opened up: Sweet Valley’s moral princess and alpha gf is in the throes of contemplation deciding whether to have sex with a man for whom she harbours merely ambivalent feelings. (History check: one SVH commentator has observed that the untying of a bikini top in SVH Playing With Fire is the most explicit the series got in about 80 books.)

 

Back in California, the dark underbelly of the Sweet Valley dream does not take long to reveal itself. The formerly vivacious, flirty, devil-may-care Jessica is living with her ill-begotten fiancé Todd Wilkins, a bread-and-butter, apple-pie, All-American young man who readers of the earlier series will remember as Elizabeth’s first serious boyfriend. Confidential’s coup de théâtre is the revelation that Jessica and Todd conducted an ardent, tender affair several years ago, brief but wrenching. Both had been in agony over their betrayal of Elizabeth, but when their bygone liaison is discovered a few months before the action of Confidential kicks off, their attraction is rekindled and they find themselves unable to resist the love they have for one another. Liz has repudiated the pair of them. Jess and Todd’s transgression has seen them become an object of morbid speculation among the good citizens of Sweet Valley, and we find the couple living a life of quiet woundedness near the edge of town.

It’s a stunning piece of narrative bravura. As a card-carrying Wakefield fangirl I solemnly swear it’s near impossible to imagine a crisis that could be more devastating to the cosy (cloying) world the SVH books spun out effortlessly and endlessly, like cotton candy or a spider’s web.

The consummation of a serious and committed romantic relationship between Jessica and Todd requires a radical reassessment of the storyline of first (and apparently true) love between Elizabeth and Todd which readers invested in across the course of many books. Have we been hoodwinked our entire young lives – when all the hormones were gushing and the dreams were forming and the glamour seemed real? Todd wasn’t feeling it, Liz was oblivious, and Jess a one-man woman all along? Are all our intimate experiences of the heart to be held so cheaply?

In what rates as possibly my favourite description of a character by anyone, anywhere, Jessica describes the sister as “serious and sensible, reliable and comfortable, sort of like nurses’ shoes.” But in Confidential she “wasn’t the Elizabeth anyone knew.” Elizabeth is in extremis; experiencing a crisis of faith occasioned by the two people closest and dearest to her. Much of the book seems hijacked by Elizabeth’s id, as she plans to break up Jess and Todd while reassuring herself that she doesn’t really want to break them up (or maybe it’s just confused plotting, but whatever). Liz feels schadenfreude and real aggression (at one point an “irresistible, nasty need to satisfy the anger physically”). On sleepless nights she welters in shifting revenge fantasies as a means of self-soothing. Elizabeth is a fully fleshed depiction of a person whose better inclinations have been ground down to almost naught.

I was a bit shocked (and thrilled) by the book’s depiction of these visceral, brittle reverberations, Liz’s incontinent paroxysms and convulsions: it is so different from the Elizabeth we knew. But emotionally I didn’t question it. As readers we’re in exactly the same position as she is. For years, we’ve been led to believe in one thing; turns out we shouldn’t have bought it, just like that. All that emotional immediacy we thought we’d felt, understood, shared with Liz and Todd is undermined in one fell swoop.

Don’t trust the tranquil heart of Sweet Valley. You don’t go home. Nothing is the same when your past deforms behind you. You can’t go back.

A gap of a decade is a narrative gauntlet – when Pascal sat down to write Confidential she must have recognised it as a landmark which demanded nothing less than an extraordinary incident: something which comprehensively exceeded Jessica and Elizabeth’s regular twin adventures. This impetus was surely matched by an additional demand. When a world like Sweet Valley is re-made, it becomes imperative to take account of faith, and specifically keeping it: the compact already forged with your readers, in all of their ardour and avidity. It is they who shall most appraisingly measure the distance between the old and the new. I think of a returning space mission, which requires many fine calibrations of innumerable complex mechanisms, and many years of time to mark the reach of a void; all to achieve the modest act of re-arriving.

I’ve encountered nothing to suggest that Confidential was approached with such gravitas. Nor do I see any reason why it should be, really. On one hand, the covenant between a writer and a child reader who now happens to be an adult is no less sacred than that between twins not to tryst with the beloved of the other. Then again, Sweet Valley without some insouciance is like Jessica Wakefield without a line of 37 admirers, i.e., against the natural order of all things. So this is all really just to say that I didn’t expect an existential crisis depicted in my most cherished teen pulp fiction to touch a nerve like this, staging a robust challenge to whatever complacency I or any fan might have had around the credibility of our understanding of the past, not to mention inviting reflection on the transience of all things. But maybe all long-term relationships set the scene for such profundity, even when it’s as minor as the relationship between a reader and the YA land of her heart.

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Michelle Kelly's picture

Michelle Kelly

Michelle Kelly wishes she’d had the idea to re-read Sweet Valley High in her thirties first. She posts with alarming irregularity at http://shellkellyx.tumblr.com/