More than twenty years have passed since I last picked up a Sweet Valley book, but when I heard Francine Pascal had written an adult follow-up, I was unreasonably excited. I didn’t think Sweet Valley Confidential was going to be good, but I figured it would entertain my inner 10-year old and be the kind of mindless fluff that could (hopefully) kick start a return to more regular reading.
Although Sweet Valley Confidential is actually the first of the series to be written by the series creator, it had the same feel, shallow character development, and fixation on appearances that I knew and loved and was always somewhat baffled by. Baffled not because the books were hard to read, but rather because as an awkward 10-year-old Catholic school girl, I had trouble identifying with the gorgeous, boy crazy, clothes obsessed, 16-year-old Wakefield twins.
Objectively speaking, the book was pretty bad. But from a nostalgia perspective, it does its job.
The stars of Sweet Valley Confidential are, as always, the picture perfect twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield. In the two decades since the twins were 16 years old, they have aged about ten years. I was always jealous of their perfect size 6 figures and popularity, and now I can be jealous that they have grown younger than me over time. Bitches.
In a shocking (!) plot twist that fails to be shocking since it’s essentially the plot from Double Love, the very first book in the series (only now with sex), Jessica has an affair with Elizabeth’s long-time boyfriend during college. When Elizabeth eventually finds out years later, she flees Sweet Valley for New York City, leaving Todd and Jessica free to get engaged and enjoy the most guilt-ridden, depressing romantic relationship ever conceived.
The book splits its time between Elizabeth in New York and Jessica in Sweet Valley. In what I originally thought was a clever device to give the reader extra insight, some of the story is told through first person flashbacks. But hearing the same memories twice gets old and Jessica’s narration is littered with annoying numbers of “like,” and “so,” and “way” that made me stumble through my reading. The device is also overused and by the time I got to the fourth different person whose vacuous mind I could read, I was way over it (as Jessica would say). Whether Pascal is narrating the present or allowing her characters to narrate their own memories, the level of insight is the same—not much.
Elizabeth is the good twin. She is responsible (Jessica would say boring, and apparently so would Todd!), selfless, sweet and moral. Jessica is the bad twin. She is younger by only a few minutes, but it matters. She is self-centered, wild, and fickle. But she is adorable so is extremely lovable anyway.
We know these things about the twins because the author tells us. I have heard the advice to “show, not tell” in writing. If you want to understand the opposite, read this book.
There’s not much more to the twins than these caricatures. Regardless of what Pascal tells the reader, neither twin seems to have many redeeming qualities, other than being drop dead gorgeous.
Jessica herself seems to wish she could think of more redeeming qualities:
“And there I go again, selfish Jessica…What can I do? Twenty-seven is too late to change. Besides, I have some good qualities.”
The only one she can come up with is “I love Elizabeth.” I’d hate to see what she does to people she doesn’t love.
Jessica’s shallowness can be excused because she is supposed to be shallow. But what about Elizabeth?
The twins’ older brother, Steven, compares the twins and finds Elizabeth to be “extraordinary.” Elizabeth’s extraordinary alright, and don’t think she doesn’t know it.
“She’d always thought of herself as moral, ethical and compassionate, and—possibly somewhat immodestly—as one of the better people.”
Ick. Immodest? Perhaps just a touch.
Elizabeth, the “compassionate” twin, thinks the following about a dead man at his funeral:
“People who didn’t know him would have thought Winston was a winner, but we knew he was the model of a true loser. After making gobs of money in the dot-com venture with Bruce–and getting out just before it all crashed–Bruce was better than ever, but Winston was the classic spoiled-by-success story.”
She then goes on to remember how ugly he was:
“his ears still stuck out and his Adam’s apple jumped up and down on his long, skinny neck.”
Bruce now likes Elizabeth and that is apparently enough reason for her to think he’s no longer “impossibly arrogant and conceited.” One of the reasons given for Elizabeth’s friendship with Bruce is that:
“they didn’t like the same people, which gave them lots of fun conversations and private jokes.”
Let me remind you that this is the good twin.
Elizabeth spends most of the book obsessing about revenge while simultaneously worrying the achievement of revenge will ruin her perfect reputation. She is completely preoccupied with what people think of her (“She…wouldn’t be the Elizabeth everyone knew and loved…”) which is ironic given how judgmental she is.
Jessica and Todd spend most of the book feeling guilty and miserable about hurting Elizabeth, being gossiped about and also judged by civilized society.
Sure the original forbidden sex was hot, but an engagement? I kept waiting for Pascal to show me (or even tell me!) why the Jessica-Todd relationship was worth all of the angst (Jessica herself wonders “what was good about what they had”). But on this point, and most others, the reader has to take the author’s word for it.
She attempts this explanation for the key plot device of the book from Todd’s perspective:
“Yes, she could be self-absorbed, yes, she could be a little selfish, but she was delightful, charming, smarter than most people knew, and utterly captivating. He would never really know her completely, and that mystery fascinated him. He’d never felt that way about any other woman. He couldn’t get enough of her.
And she was in love with him…She’d sacrificed her sister for him, a thought that tortured him… But every day that he was with her was glorious despite the family troubles.”
Each day is “glorious” because Pascal says so. Never mind how each chapter includes Jessica crying and Todd wishing he could move to escape their miserable life in Sweet Valley.
So the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But there were some things that resonated with me, mostly about what might make Jessica tick.
Pascal clubs the reader over the head with Jessica’s inferiority complex. She makes it abundantly clear that people can tell the twins apart based on their character. Jessica is “the wrong twin.” She looks exactly like Elizabeth, but always comes in second. She has always felt that she doesn’t measure up and after hearing pretty much everyone in Sweet Valley confirm how much they prefer Elizabeth, even though Elizabeth sounds like a pain in the ass, I felt sympathy for Jessica even though she’s a shit.
Jessica impulsively marries a rich older man partially to avoid that she’s fallen in love with her sister’s boyfriend. Once she realizes what a mistake she’s made and how trapped she is (her new husband is controlling and more than a little creepy), the part about her escape was both a little funny (there was some cute French miscommunication, in which I learned that Jessica and I have the same favorite French word: caoutchouc) and kind of suspenseful. It was the one of the few times I felt invested in what happened to any of the characters.
I don’t want to ruin any more of the plot, so I’ll close with a tribute to Sweet Valley’s impressive continued commitment to shallowness through some of my favorite character descriptions.
“Bruce Patman was, as always, Bruce Patman…”
Um, that’s…helpful? Bruce is a very important character in this book and I know more about his home furnishings than who he is.
Jessica on her boss:
“Good teeth. Beautiful teeth. Very white, but not that artificial paint white they do in those storefront shops. His teeth were slightly transparent, just right, and perfectly even. Also, there were no show-off dimples or chin clefts. His was a look for the long term.”
Have you ever thought about anyone’s teeth in this much detail?
Jessica on her brother:
“It’s a body I would know anywhere, even from the back: broad shoulders, neat waist, good legs. So many men have spindly legs, but not him. And they’re in great shape and not too hairy. In fact, he’s an absolute hunk, even if he is my brother.”
Oh my God, no. Just no.
Bruce on a minor male character:
“He’s slim but he’s got that hidden threat of an incipient eater with the rounded cheeks and the beginnings of a small softness around his middle.”
This is a dude describing another dude. Seriously? And also, incipient? I had to look that shit up. Let’s leave such fancy words for literature.