Sweet Valley Confidential marks the return of the Sweet Valley Twins. How excited I am to write that sentence is testament to the enduring power of the series, a kind of a madeleine made of saccharine Californian sunshine and drama.
For those of you who missed them the first time around, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield are the Sweet Valley Twins. We first met them in Sweet Valley High: Jessica was a boy-crazy cheerleader and sensible Elizabeth worked at the school paper and had a totally platonic relationship with her favourite English teacher, Mr Collins. They were so alike and yet so different! Every book (and there were literally hundreds, plus a TV show), was filled with shenanigans. My two favourite books of the Sweet Valley High series involved a coma and a kidnapping respectively. I liked Jessica better, but was always secretly afraid I was closer in character to teacher’s-pet Elizabeth.
The set up of Sweet Valley Confidential is thus: Elizabeth is twenty-seven years old and working for a start-up newspaper in New York. She’s broken up with Todd Wilkins, long term boyfriend and one-time captain of the Sweet Valley High basketball team; she has had a brief and unsatisfactory fling (“She cried after every orgasm.” Your intrepid reviewer laughed so hard she snorted gin and tonic out her nose) and worst of all, Elizabeth isn’t talking to Jessica.
Why, Lizzie, why? Jessica may be flighty and boy-crazy, but she’s your twin! You’ve told us a million times you love her no matter what! Okay, and in about every book prior to this one, you guys have a fight, but nothing this bad!
And Bruce! Don’t get me started on Bruce!
Sweet Valley Confidential is a triumph in as much as it manages to set up and solve this satisfactorily. Yes, I said a triumph. The revelations about some of the characters had me literally gasping and the structure, which bounced back and forth between characters, viewpoints, location and times is infinitely more complex then we got from the original Sweet Valley High series which was more concerned with homecoming then storytelling.
Would Sweet Valley Confidential have held my attention if I hadn’t wanted to see what the poor-little-rich-girl Lila Fowler had been up to all these years? Maybe not. But it’s that emotional relationship with the characters that makes Sweet Valley Confidential so powerful. Without that connection, which made me gasp with horror when Winston Egbert was involved in an accident, and laugh knowingly at A.J. Morgan’s womanising ways, and wonder why Caroline Pearce got so much page-space and Enid Rollins so little, the book would’ve probably fallen flat. But as strange as it may seem to those of you who are not a woman of a certain age, I did have that connection and I did genuinely want to know what they’d been up to all these years.
I’m not the only one who has missed the twins. There’s a huge fan community online, rehashing the stories and speculating what might have happened to them after Sweet Valley University.
Sure, the Sweet Valley books have never been, objectively, good, but that has never been the point. They’re problematic in a lot of ways, from the unrealistic depiction of high school – all cheerleading, cafeterias and Sadie Hawkins dances – to the twin’s heavenly perfection. In this latest book:
Their eyes were shades of aqua that danced in the light like shards of precious stones, oval and fringed with thick, light brown lashes long enough to cast a shadow on their cheeks. Their silky blond hair, the cascading kind, fell just below their shoulders. And to complete the perfection, their rosy lips looked as if they were penciled on. There wasn’t a thing wrong with their figures, either. It was as if billions of possibilities all fell together perfectly.
But Sweet Valley has never meant to be, objectively, realistic. And it’s all part of growing up to realise that high school actually really sucks, and one will never have a twin, or the cascading kind of hair, that you’re probably more like Enid Rollins then any other character and that in all likelihood one’s second marriage will not be to a millionaire who whisks one away to live on a yacht. Well, your second marriage won’t be, but mine totally will. Totally.
Likewise, it’s all part of life to realise that that if Francine Pascal says Jessica is dating who now??!! then that’s just the way things are and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Sweet Valley Confidential did have adult nuances which the original books either lacked, or I was too young to pick up on (the last time I read a Sweet Valley book, Love, Lies and Jessica Wakefield, I was all of nine years old). Sweet Valley Confidential struck me as uncomfortably realistic in places: namely, the unhappy wife baking to cover her sadness and the best friend pining after the unavailable woman had me tweeting: “Get out of my head, Francine Pascal! That’s just cold,” and: “Freakin’ doppelgangers. You cut close to the bone, #SVC.”
Sweet Valley Confidential didn’t feel like the set-up for yet another spin off series, and I can’t decide whether or not that’s a good thing. At the end of the story, loose ends are tied up, and I don’t think it’s giving away the ending to say that everyone seems to be on the cusp of living happily ever after. Other characters have yet to be fully explored though: what’s happened to Lila? Lila could have about three books of her own, and given the depth of the Sweet Valley franchise, she probably will.
All good literature is escapist. And if that’s the only standard we hold it to, then for a woman of a certain age, Sweet Valley Confidential is the best book you’ll read all year. Absolutely recommended for fans of the original series; everyone else should avoid it like you would Winston Egbert.