Francine Pascal, Sweet Valley Confidential

Somewhere in my blog drafts there exists a post about sequels (particularly when they come a few years later, and/or are by different authors) as a form of literary criticism – in that they generally comment in some way upon the original text. This being my blog I was illustrating this with reference to the Pamela Cox Malory Towers/St Clare’s sequels and fillers. Some day I must see about finishing it. But this is what makes sequels inherently interesting to me (and is also a big reason for my championing fanfiction, but that’s another post).

I’m also deeply fond of the Sweet Valley High books. We have a long history together – I bought my first at the airport when I moved from England to India; I got into trouble at school a couple of years later with a certain teacher who thought she ought to be allowed to dictate what I read; I bonded with wonderful people (like the brilliant Anna) over them.
Recently I reviewed Sweet Valley Confidential, the ten-years-later sequel to the Sweet Valley High books. The review was here in last week’s TSG. The unedited version is below – I did think of putting some of my reactions while reading it up here, but the only point at which they really got funny was my outrage at Lila Fowler’s boob job (should I have put a spoiler warning here?). I will eventually put up a plot synopsis in crayon, though.

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There’s a sense in which all adaptations, sequels, and even fanfiction of a work of literature or film function as a kind of critical appraisal. This is inevitable –each of these requires commentary on and interpretation of the original work. So a “ten years after” sequel to a successful franchise, years after the franchise has run its course, and by the woman who created the characters and setting yet didn’t actually write the books, has the potential to be far more interesting than the book itself would indicate.

The Sweet Valley High series (along with its various spinoffs; Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley University, and others) was conceived of by Francine Pascal. At the centre of the series were the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, beautiful and identical but with opposite personalities. The new sequel, Sweet Valley Confidential, revisits the same characters ten years later.

A sequel to the Sweet Valley books was never going to follow any sort of internal consistency. This would be impossible; while the original series allegedly took place when the twins were 16, the books existed in that strange suspended time as do a lot of long series. Multiple birthdays and Christmases passed without aging the characters in the slightest. All this means that Sweet Valley Confidential is able to pick and choose its history and it does so seemingly at random.

In this book the twins are estranged. Elizabeth works as a theatre critic in New York, cut off from her family. After a disastrous marriage to a jealous millionaire, Jessica is engaged to Elizabeth’s former boyfriend Todd.

The original readers of the Sweet Valley High books are all in their twenties and thirties now, and presumably well aware of some of the more ridiculous aspects of the series. So, it seems, is Pascal herself. It’s hard to imagine why anyone who hadn’t read the original series would pick this book up, and this knowledge allows Pascal to do more with the book than she could otherwise have done. The book is full of snarky references to the original series. It’s never outright parody, but there’s an arch knowingness to it – a signalling to the readers that both she and they know this is all very silly. A scene in which the twins’ mother is reduced to growling “bring out the fucking cake” is hilarious entirely because of its incongruity with the original series. At times the tone is outright sarcastic:

It was a fun wedding. Not a whole lot different from any Sweet Valley High dance, which, as everyone knows, is not a whole lot different from real life.

The book ends with an epilogue of the “where are they now” variety, in which we are given potted histories of characters who were not mentioned in the book itself. This is blatant fan service, but then, so is the whole book.

At times the mocking allusiveness can be genuinely uncomfortable. In veiled references that would be lost to anyone who didn’t remember the original books, Pascal reminds us of an attempted date rape and a false accusation of sexual assault that took place between couples who (in this book) are now living happily ever after.

The knowing tone is unpleasant, but it is not consistently maintained. At some points this seems a genuinely unironic sequel –the twins are still flawlessly beautiful and talented, fat people are still anathema, and everyone is still the same person he or she was in high school.

Then there’s the sheer badness of it all. Jessica’s ditziness is indicated by the dropping of anachronistic (Sweet) Valley girl “likes” into everything she says. Then there’s the sex; it’s odd enough to see characters from one’s childhood having sex, but Pascal makes it all quite needlessly terrible; in the first chapter Elizabeth’s heartbreak is so profound that “[s]he cried after every orgasm”. Or this, rather happier encounter:

When they made love, it was completely loving, full of such deep tenderness that the passion almost played second to the adoration.

But the passion was there, and once the love had been established, the excitement took over and spun them out into the wild reaches of the glorious.

At last Elizabeth knew the splendid, the marvelous, the amazing, the spectacular!

The over the top!

Over the top indeed.

Read without reference to the rest of the series, Sweet Valley Confidential is merely a bad book. With the knowledge of the context behind it, however, it is awkward, uncomfortable, and depressing. One can only hope that the forthcoming Sweet Valley High movie, to be scripted by Diablo Cody, is less painful.

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I do have questions. With the option of cherrypicking her series history, Pascal could so easily have not included the attempted daterape or the false accusation – just as she chose to ignore Jessica and Todd’s multiple affairs over the course of the series. Things like this make me wonder if the book is more thought out than it appears – which doesn’t stop it from being shite, but still.

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