(Blogger’s note: I also covered the release of this book extensively at my other blog. A full rundown of what I thought of the book can be found there.)
Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield have grown up. Now 27, the girls are living on opposite coasts: Elizabeth is in New York, working for an online magazine that covers off-Broadway shows, and Jessica is still in Sweet Valley, engaged to Todd Wilkins and pretty miserable because Elizabeth won’t talk to her. Elizabeth’s anger is mostly justified, and her fleeing to NYC makes sense when one considers that her boyfriend and her twin sister carried on an affair right under her nose. Throw in an 80th birthday party, some stupid revenge plot, and a lot of character derailment, and you’ve got something approximating a story.
After months (years?) of ridiculous anticipation, Francine Pascal published her novel Sweet Valley Confidential. Sweet Valley Confidential is her answer to fans’ speculation about what became of those gorgeous, perfect twins and all of their gorgeous, mostly-perfect friends after they left high school. Or college. Or England. Whatever. The time line of the original series is fuzzy at best, but when one starts adding in all the spin-offs, all logic, reason, and sense goes out the window.
Which is pretty much how one should approach this novel, because it’s a hot mess, you guys. Even though it’s no secret that the books in the Sweet Valley Universe were written by scores of ghostwriters, Pascal has always maintained that she was involved in every major creative decision regarding the stories and the characters. One would hope, then, that Pascal would consult the literary cannon of the books during the process of writing a book about what happened to the characters since leaving high school.
That doesn’t seem to be the case. In addition to mixing up time lines and basic plot points, Pascal confuses characters, mentions deaths of characters who never actually died (while neglecting to mention a few who did actually die), gives repeat exposition (which makes this reader think that either she wrote the book in chunks or there was more than one writer working on this project), and allows beloved (and hated) characters to become total strangers. Did everyone in Sweet Valley undergo lobotomies? No? Then why do all these people seem to be fundamentally altered?
In addition to these major instances of faux pas, Pascal’s story is pretty boring. Elizabeth is still total dullsville, even when she’s living in one of the most exciting cities in the entire world. Jessica is still selfish and delusional, but their central dilemma bores me. The lengthy, too-often-occurring flashbacks served no real purpose other than to further confuse me in terms of where I was in the time line of the last ten years. Pascal alternates perspectives of characters whenever she wants, which is both lazy and unhelpful.
Finally, something must be said about the writing itself. There are a few moments where Pascal injects some genuine humor into the story (the scene where Alice Wakefield yells at Ned to “bring out the fucking cake” is the only moment where I actually laughed out loud). It’s also clear that Pascal has a genuine love and understanding of the theater, and these passages are full of competent writing. However, I faltered every time Pascal described a sexual interlude. These passages were awkward and full of purple prose (for the love of all that is good and right in the world, NO ONE ever needed to know that Elizabeth has “taut nipples”), and they made me cringe. Also, there was something about Pascal’s syntax that felt off to me. Many sentences seemed awkwardly constructed, full of strange word choices.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that as much as I hated this book, I also kind of enjoyed it. It’s like meeting up with really old friends and seeing how much they’ve changed (mostly for the worse). It’s surreal and uncomfortable, but you get a secret sort of thrill from it all the same. Would I recommend this book? Not really, but I think it’s kind of a must-read for fans (old and new) of Sweet Valley High. Much as I’m loathe to admit it, this is part of the cannon now.
Sweet Valley Confidential by Francine Pascal, St. Martin’s Press: 2011. Purchased copy.