As a devoted follower of all Enid Blyton’s stories as a young child it was natural that as I became a teenager and started secondary school I would want to read books that reflected this new life experience. So I started on her Malory Towers series and then wondered why my school days weren’t filled with cross-country romps, midnight feasts and stays in the sanatorium with Matron.
Perhaps searching for similarities in books that were written by a definite ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ type in the late 1940s wasn’t going to be much help. I would look across the pond instead, and see if more modern teenage literature was anything closer to my adolescent life.
Maybe not. The Sweet Valley set comprised several series of books (oh, an enormous amount of books) which were originally published over twenty years, starting in 1983 with Sweet Valley High. This first series concerned the school and romantic (and all-round fabulous) lives of the identical Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth. Blonde of hair, sparkly white of teeth and with figures that had every tanned, tall and sparkly white-toothed male in the area drooling, they were irritating from page one of the first book. Not entirely sure that jealousy didn’t play a part in my analysis there however, given that throughout secondary school I was marginally overweight and had a dodgy perm…
The fabulous twins and all their fabulous friends lived in the fabulous Sweet Valley area of California. It always seemed to be sunny, they all looked good in swimming costumes, and the mall was only ever a short trip away in someone’s shiny Jeep. The twins had amazingly understanding (and rich) parents in Ned and Alice, who always knew exactly the right thing to say whenever one of the girls got themselves into a ‘situation’, which was pretty much all the time. Situations happened to Jessica because she was headstrong and a bit thick, Elizabeth because she was forever the altruist and seemed to enjoy putting herself in jeopardy to help others. There was also a brother, Steven, who was - guess what? -tall and good-looking, as well as being an all-round great guy.
Each book in the first series comprised of a complete story; these were most often about something incredulous that happened to the twins, but from time to time peeked into the life of one of their friends or enemies (sorry ‘bitter rivals’ as the books normally described any of the squabbling teenagers as). In general everybody at Sweet Valley High was slim and gorgeous, and if anybody wasn’t slim and gorgeous they were seen somewhat as social pariahs and their particular book would tell the tale of how they overcame a personal problem and eventually became slim and gorgeous and therefore acceptable in the popular circles. Ah, what great life lessons for us all!
Personal problems abounded in Sweet Valley; from regular encounters with drink and drug abuse (although this was similar to many US teen programmes where anybody having more than one small beer on a night out was considered to be an alcoholic and immediately hustled off to rehab) to injuries from seemingly endless car or motorbike accidents (insurance premiums must have been hugely pricey in Sweet Valley), terminal illnesses and being gossiped about if you didn’t quite fit in with the sun-kissed beach lifestyle.
Boyfriends got passed around the female characters freely, with more romantic encounters and illicit liaisons than you could shake a stick at. At the rate Jessica and Elizabeth went through men during their spell in high school it’s surprising that the final books in the series didn’t see them having to drive into other states to find eligible partners after exhausting California’s supply. Despite this however, their dates were all remarkably chaste, and anybody who is thought to have, well – you know, ‘done it’ with somebody else was quickly labelled ‘easy’ by the sneeringly pious youths.
Throw in a few kidnappings, the odd ‘shock’ death, a plane crash, some sorority bitchiness (nope, I still have no idea what the purpose of a sorority is despite having read a great many of these books), huge amounts of love rivalry and the occasional dull chapter about Liz working on the school paper and that’s pretty much all you need to know about Sweet Valley High. Oh, there was also a lot of stuff about cheerleading but I usually skipped those bits.
Alongside the regular novels were the ‘Super Editions’ and ‘Super Thrillers’ – more pages, more jeopardy, more blonde hair and white teeth! The Editions’ plotlines were pretty similar to the ones already described above; feuds, make-ups and men – although a lot of these took place in new locations as the twins jetted off on fabulous trips. I’d grown out of SVH (hey, I still know the lingo) by the time a lot of the later books were published, and having looked over a quick summary of some of them I’m fairly glad I did….number nine, Mystery Date, has this synopsis: ‘Olivia Davidson meets a guy in an internet chat room.’ Woohoo, talk about exciting! Although to be fair, number eleven, Earthquake (can you guess what that one is about?) is a bit more interestin – especially as number twelve, Aftershock, deals with the aftermath of said earthquake and Olivia Davidson goes from being able to access the internet to being a bit dead.
The Thrillers stepped up the adrenaline further, including stories where Jessica witnessed a murder, Elizabeth decided to be in love with a member of the Witness Protection Programme and the pair of them foiled a mad bomber. Oh, and Jessica got kidnapped in the last one for good measure.
Super Stars came next: a series of six stories about other Sweet Valley characters. Competition, drugs, revenge…blah di blah di blah. The Magna Editions interspersed more of the same scenarios with a couple of look backs at past stories from different viewpoints, as well as some family histories. Well come on, don’t tell me you weren’t dying to know about the fascinating Lila Fowler’s ancestors?
And if you are contemplating giving a big sigh of relief at the end of all that – hold it in for a few minutes longer. Because not only were there the books I’ve just mentioned there was also - deep breath - Sweet Valley Kids (stories about the twins when they were seven), Sweet Valley Twins (similar stories, twins a bit older), The Unicorn Club (spin off from Sweet Valley Twins), Sweet Valley Junior High (similar stories, twins a bit older), Sweet Valley High: Senior Year (similar stories…yep, you’ve got it), Sweet Valley University (yep), Elizabeth (set of six stories about the twin that’s not called Jessica), Sweet Valley High: the TV series and Sweet Valley Confidential.
Sweet Valley Confidential is perhaps the most amusing of all the books: author Francine Pascal created the concept and kept control of a large procession of ghost writers for all the previous publications, but for this one she wrote it in its entirety. Published in 2011, the characters are all grown-up by now, and Pascal tries her best to cram in what’s happened to them in the missing years; my favourites being Steven Wakefield who married, divorced and subsequently fell in love with a male football player and former ‘class clown’ Winston Egbert who turned into a miserable miser and then fell off a balcony.
And finally (I know – it’s astonishing, isn’t it?) comes Sweet Valley: The Sweet Life. 6 books which attempt to find the twins interesting at 30. Quite frankly, the only way I’d still be interested in this pair of vapid females is if they were now eighteen stone and spent their time methodically punching all their equally banal friends in the face.
I did absolutely love Sweet Valley High when I was fourteen though.