Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Nostalgia: Sweet Valley High
I've read several articles lately about ghost writers, and the most often pointed to series is Sweet Valley High. Amy Boesky wrote this great piece for The Kenyon Review about her time as a ghost writer. Now, if you weren't aware that Francine Pascal was not chained to a typewriter churning out hundreds of Sweet Valley High, Sweet Valley Twins, and Sweet Valley Junior High books and I have just ruined your childhood, I'm sorry. It's a little like finding out about Santa. And by that I mean that Santa's a great guy, and red is very slimming, and please bring me signed box set of Daughter of Smoke and Bone for Christmas!
But at least Francine Pascal was a real person. If you were a Nancy Drew devotee, finding out there was never an actual Carolyn Keene could be heartbreaking. Ghost writing is a serious business, still very much in use today. Honestly, as much fun as it would be to talk about this dirty little secret of the publishing world, I would rather talk about the product: The horrible deliciousness of Sweet Valley High.
Imagine it: 1980's suburban California, in a picturesque small town, two perfect blond twins with vastly different personalities that everyone either completely wants to be-daring Jessica or entirely relates to-good-girl Elizabeth. And everyone at their school seems pretty perfect too, all tan, athletic, and charming. The girls-mostly Jessica-get into some trouble-usually caused by Jessica-and then work their way out-meaning Elizabeth solves the problem-then Jessica pouts. Pretty simple plot line considering the hundreds of books it inspired.
Let's look at some the finer points each of the first three books.
Double Love-Elizabeth likes Todd, but Jessica kinda likes Todd too and convinces him that Elizabeth is seeing so many other guys that he doesn't have a chance. Meanwhile, Jessica gets caught at a skivvy bar with what's-his-name and gets picked up by the police, and she tells them she's Elizabeth and rumors run wild, but Elizabeth gets it all cleared up in the end, gets Todd, and gets Jessica thrown into the school swimming pool. Jessica pouts.
Secrets: Elizabeth's best friend Enid is worried about secret that will drive her and her boyfriend apart. Jessica finds out about this secret and uses it to clinch a homecoming queen win. Elizabeth is blamed for the breach of trust, rumors run wild, Elizabeth figures it out, and Jessica wins homecoming queen, but instead of dancing with dreamy Bruce Patman, Jessica's king is lovable nerd, Winston. Jessica pouts.
Playing with Fire: Jessica finally gets Bruce Patman, but he's distant and cold to her much of the book. She sits idly by the phone waiting for him to call. Elizabeth is worried that the fire has gone out of her sister. Elizabeth discovers that Bruce has another woman on the side and when she sees Jessica pouting at his birthday party, she decides to call him out. The leave the party, come back later, see Bruce with another girl and Jessica dumps soda all over him and lets the air out of the tires of his sleek black Porsche. Jessica doesn't pout at the very end, but there's still lots of Jessica pouting time in the book.
See pretty basic. Jessica creates trouble, Elizabeth finds out and makes Jessica pay, Jessica pouts. Formula fiction at it's best!
After the first two books, I was pouting. Why? Because I didn't have a third SVH book on my Kindle. First world problem, I know. But wonder of wonders, I did have the third book. And this is how I've spent my free time lately. Reading about southern California 30 years ago and honestly, loving every minute of it. How can something so mindless as SVH be so satisfying? Maybe because it's all fantasy, or that all the characters eventually get what they deserve. Plus there are some great eighties references that are just cringe-worthy, like Todd saying to Elizabeth "You don't look too happy for a girl who is going to the dance with the greatest guy on the West Coast." to which she replies "Oh, Burt Reynolds is taking me to the dance". Um, eew. Or the description of the fashion that alternates between leg warmers and big hair, and dress suits with shoulder pads--in mauve. Mauve is no longer a color. It was discontinued in 1994.
It's just all so bad it's good! So very, very bad. And I would caution parents that want to pass judgement on the young adult literature of today, remember SVH. That's what we read, it was dreadful, and we became productive members of society. In a way. Well, I'm productive when I'm not reading SVH.
All this to say, if you are looking for a quick trip down memory lane, I do recommend that you re-read some classic 80's formula fiction. It will have you laughing, at inappropriate moments maybe, but laughing none-the-less.