You Can't Go Home Again
I am a major Sweet Valley fan from way back (think 1988 and no I am not revealing my age here) and when I found out about Sweet Valley Confidential and the ensuing six part miniseries, I was beyond excited... despite how weird my friends and family find it, I never stopped reading Sweet Valley, from the time I was 10 until it's sad ending in 2002. That's 20 or so years of Sweet Valley so the promised update on the lives of the twins was, for me, a present of EPIC proportions. Unfortunately, these books failed to live up to my expectations. As soon as I cracked the page of Confidential, to find former virgin-for-life Lizzie bawling during sex (oh, btw, this proves Pascal totally watches Grey's Anatomy) I realized this was not going to be the Sweet Valley I remembered. The miniseries does a slightly better job, but overall I found this return to my idealistic youth a sad disappointment and a shadow of its former glory.
It's three years after the events of Confidential and Elizabeth and Jessica are back to being best friends and living in good old Sweet Valley Heights, which has become a suburb of Los Angeles. Jess is still married to Todd, with a two year old child, and Lizzie is (gasp!) living in sin with her lover/boyfriend, Bruce Patman. Life is relatively calm and happy for the twins and friends, though resentment is brewing in the Wakefield/Wilkins home. Boring, conservative Todd can't stand it that his beautiful, successful wife is managing to be both a successful advertising executive AND a great mom to little Jake. Jessica's reluctance to leave her job and stay at home with the baby causes trouble for the happy couple. But scandal and intrigue REALLY erupt when Jessica suspects Todd of sleeping with a coworker, and Bruce is accused of raping one of his interns. Elizabeth's initial refusal to believe in his potential guilt made me giggle a bit... did she simply forget when he once tried to force himself on her? Apparently not. She DOES remember that night and that memory, coupled with the media's mud-slinging, and Bruce's inability to remember the events of the night in question, shake Lizzie's once solid confidence in her man. Will they weather this storm and stay together or will Lizzie lose her faith in the man she loves and lose him forever? Will Jessica be able to forgive Todd for his liaison with another woman? And can Todd forgive Jess for a similar betrayal? The answers will astound you. Scandalous!
Another thing I really liked was the attempts at continuity, like Lila's immediate reaction to the alleged rape, when she remembers John Pfeiffer's attack on her at Miller's Point in high school. It seems the new writer got her hands on a copy of the Sweet Valley Bible and (in the words of Jessica "you know, like, actually memorized it." Or at least read the series, before taking on this job. Speaking of which, could any Sweet Valley fan be luckier than to land a ghost writing job on this series? I would have so. much. fun with that.
But anyway. The book has a lot of problems. It doesn't feel like Sweet Valley should. It doesn't come close to resembling the world we 30-Something fans grew to love. For one thing, the F-word is thrown around a lot and despite the fact that these girls are now 30, foul language, much like graffiti and fat people, are not supposed to exist in this world. I also understand that people grow and change, but moralistic Elizabeth as a shady journalist that lies and cheats to get the story is not something I can wrap my head around. And... I know I should have gotten over it by now since Sweet Valley Confidential was published almost a year ago and I've had ample time to process it. But... Jess and Todd. JessandTodd, ToddandJess=TLA? I still don't buy it. Those two always hated each other, and not in the "we secretly wanna do the horizontal mamba" kind of way. Jess considered him totally dullsville and Todd thought her a selfish shrew. Putting those two together for the sake of drama literally smacks of an author looking for an easy way to stir up trouble and hurt Elizabeth. There must be a ton of other ways to accomplish the same ends without a ridiculous plot contrivance that makes absolutely no sense. If I wasn't OCD enough to need all the gritty details, I'd simply skip the parts about them. Sadly, Sweet Valley has always had me twisted around it's beachy little Pleasantville-like finger , and I can't seem to tear my eyes away from the page. Even when it's a TRAIN WRECK of a story, as most of this is truly is. Speaking of, I'm amazed the world of Sweet Valley never did a story like that...but between all the shipwrecks, plane crashes, earthquakes (two, wait no THREE of them!) and crazed murderer's on the loose, I guess they thought they had enough disasters to contend with.
However, if there is one thing that does make sense to me, it's Lila Fowler as a True Housewife of Sweet Valley. (I guess they couldn't call it Real Housewives due to stupid trademark laws.) Lila is truly fabulous and sensational and I can TOTALLY see her diva-ing it up on reality TV; reveling in the attention and fab swag afforded her by the producers.
Unfortunately, the fabulous Lila we all remember as the foil to Jessica's antics has become less of a foil and more of a, well, flat out bitch. The scheming tricks she pulls on her husband (Ken Matthews!) throughout the series really don't seem Lila's style. First of all, Lila is far too much of a snob to marry a lowly, new money FOOTBALL player. Especially one she went to high school with, momentarily dated, and then dumped because of his crush on the French teacher, Ms. Dalton. But what I really fail to believe is that she'd even let Ken touch the tip of one of her Christian Louboutins, much less put his hands all over her perfectly toned and waxed body. It just doesn't ring true, especially when you consider her first marriage was to an Italian count. The Contessa Fowler deigning to lower herself to a sweaty, muscle-head, who she clearly realises has muscles where his brain is supposed to be? I don't think so. The Lila I know would either be married to someone with the last name of Patman or Kennedy... or finding herself another royal to up her blue-blood ante - perhaps a prince this time? Princess Lila certainly has a ring to it.
Second, Lila has way too much class to slut it up and fake a pregnancy just to keep her dimwitted second string husband, whose head has taken way too many tackles. No real love (or even chemistry) is ever shown between these two, nor is a back story ever given that gives us a reason for us to root for them in the first place. No mention is ever made of the fact that Ken dated not just Jessica, but BOTH twins in high school, and if there is one thing I know about Lila Fowler, it's that she does not take anyone's sloppy seconds.
And speaking of sloppy seconds - what's with all the partner switching in this series (and it's predecessors?) Let's take a look at all the incestuous facts, shall we?
Todd dated both Wakefield twins AND shared an illicit kiss with Lila in high school. Ken also dated both twins in high school, disappeared during the college years, and somehow ended up marrying Lila Fowler, the widow of an Italian count, who also dated Steven Wakefield (as did one of her best friends, Cara.) Bruce not only played dated Jessica in high school, but he also slept with Annie Whitman in the back of 1Bruce1 and got all hot and heavy with Lila in University... oh and let's not forget his attempt to date rape poor Lizzie, who was suffering the personality altering effects of a hit on the head. Despite this, he somehow ends up falling in love with Elizabeth who returns his affection. As a sexual assault survivor, this story line positively INFURIATED me, as it not only tolerates but GLORIFIES the coupling of a victim and her attacker. To forgive him is one thing, but to let him ever touch her again is positively disgusting. Also I can't help but say this... I totally resent the implication (given in Confidential) that the relationship between Lila and Bruce in SVU was nothing more than a fling. I do realize that this series cleared up a lot of canonical mistakes, but it did not make mention of this particular one, so my rant remains. Excuse me, but Lila and Bruce were the longest running and most stable couple in Sweet Valley University. The two richest, brattiest, most selfish characters decided to give up MONEY for each other, vowing to live in poverty if that's what it took to prove to their parents that their love was real. I am sorry, Ms. Pascal, but that is not a fling that is a relationship that SHOULD have led to marriage - even if it ended in divorce. Alas, Bruce falls in love with Elizabeth (because who doesn't, right?)who eventually returns his affections. And then he somehow, out of the blue ends up with (view spoiler) at the end of this series? DoubleU. Tee. Eff.
And then there is Aaron who was Jessica's first kiss and occasional, casual date in high school... and now he's happily married to her brother?!?! Steven Wakefield, the straightest whitest most conservative character in the series? I AM SO CONFUSED. Please note: I have no problem with gay people whatsoever; in fact, 90% of the performing arts school I went to was at least bi and most of these people were my friends... but if my brother ended up married to my FIRST KISS, I might have, you know, a conversation, a feeling, or at least a THOUGHT about it!!! But that little tidbit is never even mentioned... not once in this six part miniseries, and not in Confidential when the scandalous reveal is first made. Both Aaron and Steven seemed like two of the straightest straight men I've ever met, at least in high school and college. I can buy Aaron as gay (especially in The Sweet Life where he is depicted as practically a gay male cliche) but STEVEN WAKEFIELD - the very same one whose first true love died of leukemia, second true love moved to London (after a near elopement) and third love he ALSO nearly married and had a baby with? Yes, I know that there are gay men who spend 20 plus years in the closet but there is usually at least a HINT of it before the "coming out." IMO, Pascal did this just to be politically correct and appeal to all readers. Okay fine, I get that. But it would have made much more sense for Tom McKay (McGay?) to make an "out and proud" appearance... but of course then, Francine would be accused of only allowing one gay person to live in her town, so I guess she can't win. But heh, that's Sweet Valley for you!
And that's another thing.... Why didn't any of these supposedly bright and successful people ever move on from high school? Why are they all still dating and marrying each other and living in the same town? I know it's not TECHNICALLY incestuous but it sure does feel like it. And for the record, why did none of them (especially LILA FOWLER of all people) ever move away from the small town they grew up in? Yeah, okay so whiny Lizzie spent a year or so moping in NYC but we all know she came back to the land of perfect tans to reunite with her sister, whose manipulative clutches she just can't seem to escape. Writers, it's London Calling, they want their plot back.
I guess part of the problem with these books is that the author tries to make Sweet Valley seem grittier and more realistic than it did in the earlier series'. Simply put, Sweet Valley is not SUPPOSED to be realistic, it's supposed to appear perfect and idealistic and far, FAR away from anything even resembling normalcy. Forget simply fighting over boys, this is a series that not only featured but EMBRACED the supernatural. Jess and Liz have dated not only the most popular boys in school, but Princes and Dukes, vampires and werewolves! They have encountered mad-women intent on stealing their mother's face. They have been kidnapped AND shipwrecked, hijacked by modern day pirates in the desert, and even gone on a "Thelma and Louise" type adventure with a Brad Pitt lookalike hot on their trail: hoping to either sleep with Jessica or kill both twins- honestly, it was hard to tell.
All that said, I am glad to see that Francine Pascal and company took to heart the words and comments of fans who were sorely disappointed by Sweet Valley Confidential. Glaring errors were fixed in the follow up books (like Mr. Fowler's name - its George, not Richard) and Jessica no longer utters the words "like" and "so" every other sentence. I suspect that Ms Pascal realizes her talents laid elsewhere, and handed the reins to a ghostwriter to put her ideas onto the page. Good choice. The writing is still on a fifth grade level, but at least it doesn't make you want to tear your eyes out like Confidential did. If you aren't expecting The Sweet Life to resemble the old series in any ways except the superficial, then it's not a bad read. But for the old fans looking for a bit of nostalgia, I recommend curling up with an old SVH paperback. Because the saying is true - you really CAN'T go home again.
P.S. There is nothing like picking up an old Sweet Valley paperback and admiring the glossy, oft-ridiculous, covers. e-books just aren't the same, convenient or not.