It's no wonder those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s possess the capacity to believe anything can happen: reading Sweet Valley High novels inevitably left us with a severe case of overactive imagination. Extensive exposure to a gang of supposedly normal teenagers who battle werewolves, date princes, and are hunted relentlessly by sociopathic identical strangers have worn down our collective sense of normalcy and common sense. Throw in some far-fetched ancestral sagas that incestuously implicate the same families for generations and we've got a full-fledged defense for our willingness to believe the ridiculous.
For teen girls coming of age in the 80s and 90s, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield seemed the adolescent prototype to which we could aspire. At the time, I was sure two more perfect people had ever existed. I fancied myself something as a Jessica, favoring clothes and makeup to being a boring stick-in-the-mud, but I was certain both girls were paragons of our generation. Only in retrospect (and with the incredibly detailed and hilarious recounts found in Shannon's Sweet Valley High blog) have I realized that my initial perceptions were a bit skewed.
It all seemed okay back when our good friends in Sweet Valley were our peers in age, but as they remain frozen in time, our more adult retrospective look at them can fairly be more than a bit critical. The more I reflect on my former fictional teen idols, the more I realize how insufferably irritating the two-dimensional twins are. What I once thought of as a characterization polarized between social butterfly and quiet serious one turned out to be a divide of selfish brat and sanctimonious prude. Kind of a bummer, right?
In spite of this late-in-the-game revelation about the twins' less than savory personality traits, Sweet Valley High still holds a special place in my heart. It can't be all bad, of course--these books encouraged young girls to read, didn't they? Sure, they may not have been as entrepreneurial and wholesome as The Babysitters' Club series, but they had an indescribable charm. When you consider the bulk of the series was penned by ghostwriters too ashamed to publicly attach their names to these projects, it could have been a lot worse. I'm not totally sure how, but use your imagination. Like I said, it's a gift from growing up Sweet Valley-obsessed, so use it wisely.
The books were supremely cheesy in a way typical of adolescent-directed fiction, but they also represent a sort of innocence of the era that becomes less believable of teenagers with each passing year. That's not to say teenagers were uniformly squeaky-clean, but the characters seem far more at home forever frozen in their 80s and 90s setting. After all, these days, many of their book-long conflicts could probably be solved with a text message or a quick Google search.
Let's meet our cardboard cast of characters, shall we?
The aforementioned sanctimonious prude, Elizabeth is continually characterized as the "good" one. So good, in fact, that she exudes self-satisfied moral superiority at every turn. Elizabeth is unrelentingly kind and caring, which makes her tireless devotion to her ethically inferior identical twin sister all the more baffling. She wears her hair in a ponytail, which in 80s and 90s teen literature is the only known symbol for being The Serious One. Like her sister, Elizabeth possesses an combination of blonde hair, blue-green eyes, and an enviable size-six figure, a fact upon which every single book in the series insists on dwelling frequently and creepily.
Like the books say, the twins may be physically identical, but all resemblances end there. Jessica is the opposite of Elizabeth in every way, namely on the caring and kindness front. Jessica is conceited, conniving, and ruthless in her pursuits of all things Jessica. She's well-liked and popular, which makes sense in a high school kind of way. Jessica's major interest seems to be coming up with schemes and dragging Elizabeth into the fiery bottomless pit of her moral vacuum.
Ned, Alice, and Steven Wakefield
See, even Wakefields make mistakes! Jessica totally thinks Steven and Cara should get married and...well, maybe you should just read it for yourself, but I promise, it's ridiculous
Would you expect anything less than a picture-perfect family for our identical young ingenues? Their family was painstakingly perfect from their lawyer father to their interior designer mother, with a handsome California-boy brother thrown in for good measure. Their glossy veneer of flawlessness cracked occasionally, but the books had a pretty good sense of the reset button, always leaving the family intact and cheek-achingly happy.
On-again-off-again romantic interest of Elizabeth, so you know he's got to be just a little bit boring. He's athletic and smart, but he's also a total drama queen. Todd and Elizabeth get into the most ridiculous incessant fights. I thought she was supposed to be the level-headed one, but turns out she's a bit more of a teenage girlcliche than she initially looked to be.
Jessica's best friend, Lila is a stuck-up heiress who for some reason was always my favorite. She just tells it like it is, and usually it's kind of mean and revolving around herself. Lila and Jessica are allegedly good friends, but they spend pretty much all of their time trying to undermine the other's social status.
Liz's best friend and resident stick-in-the-mud. She's such a sad sack sometimes you've got to wonder how even someone as nice as Elizabeth can deal with her in large doses. Enid just exudes nebishness from every freckled pore, so God help us for those rare instances of having to plow through an Enid-centric storyline.
These books often read like mini soap operas, with equally unbelievable story arcs. When the series was optioned for television, the producers did not disappoint us on the absurd storyline front. We had girls lapsing into comas and getting kidnapped at every turn.
The lyrically challenged theme song implores us to consider, "Could there be two different girls who look the same?" It's a tough question, but all signs appear to point to yes in the case of the Wakefield twins. The TV series ran mainly on FOX syndicates for its first few seasons, after which it was booted to UPN and was subsequently canceled due to plummeting ratings. Like the books, the show was something of a guilty pleasure and could only sustain our interest for so long. As the books' major audience began to age out of the teen fiction market, the days of both the show and the book series were numbered.
Don't worry, today's young girls won't be deprived of their once-requisite Wakefield exposure. The books were recently issued a re-release, featuring updated cultural references and wardrobe choices. Incidentally, the writers also demoted J and E from their once-perfect size 6 to the now-perfect size 4. How positively enlightened. If that's not enough to tide you over, there are reputable rumors of a Diablo Cody-headed SVH film project.Hopefully we can carry on with our normal lives in the midst of the brewing suspense over casting decisions.
Don't forget to check out Shannon's Sweet Valley Blog for your daily dose of SVH! This is a totally unpaid, unsolicited endorsement offered only out of my extreme reverence for Shannon's awesome and diligent recapping. She deserves major kudos for getting through all of these books again--I'm not sure I could do it, though I have lost countless afternoons at the office to reading these recaps. Amazing.