In my ‘Flotsam and Feminism’ column for Farrago magazine, I talked about Sweet Valley High and my other literary friends…
I spent most of my childhood reading books instead of connecting with real people. I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way—I guess in hindsight I might have been a bit lonely, but I loved reading so much that I don’t think I really noticed. As a kid the best part of my week was when my sister was at ballet classes and my mum would take me to Albert Park library. I’d pick out a small mountain of books to take home and devour. So, I guess that might explain a bit about the way I am—why I’m comfortable spending time alone, why I have friends but not really any super-close BFF-type girlfriends, girls I would just call up in the middle of the night. But it’s never even mattered, because if I needed someone, I’ve always had the girlfriends in my books.
Like many girls growing up in the ‘90s, The Baby-Sitters Club, and their younger version, Baby Sitters Little Sister, made up the bulk of my reading. Then there was Sweet Valley High, and the spin-offs, Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley University, and countless other versions of the same thing. Probably more than anyone else, it was those perfect blonde twins, Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, who saw me through tough times, and who I had the most fun with. I loved both girls, but Elizabeth was (predictably) my clear favourite. She was exactly the type of girl I wanted to be when I was older—studious, super-smart, editor of the school newspaper… but you know, also completely gorgeous and popular with a cute, basketball-playing boyfriend.
As I got older and my love of reading drew me towards more serious books, I continued to form weird fantasy friendships with my literary heroines. In high school, I knew Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar would totally get me; she’d understand my inexplicable sadness, my sense of being surrounded but completely alone. When I read Wuthering Heights, I knew Catherine Earnshaw and I could have had some pretty intense heart-to-hearts about love and obsession, although I would probably have still been a total bitch and secretly made a move on Heathcliff. Even now, I’d quite like to swan around Manhattan with the glamorous but secretly vulnerable Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or even better, with the romantic and capricious Grady McNeil of Summer Crossing. Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm would be pretty wonderful for a bitch-fest, or if I needed a plan to get a guy’s attention or a promotion at work. And Rachael of Nazareth, from my new favourite, The Book of Rachael, would be that passionate and brilliant girl I’d look up to adoringly, who would inspire me to always be braver and stronger.
But as much as I adore these women, none of them have ever quite felt as close to me as the girls in those pre-teen series. Part of it might be the amount of time I’ve spent with them- you only get a few hours with real, grown-up, standalone books, but when there are hundreds of books in a series, you can form real relationships with the characters. But I guess the more obvious reason I had such a special relationship with these girls was that books played such a big role in shaping my ideas about the world back then. On the cusp of becoming a teenager, reading about those older, glamorous girls in high school was a glimpse into what life could be like outside of my own head. Or at least, what life could be like if I was blonde and gorgeous and lived in a sunny Californian neighbourhood where all the kids hung out at the Dairi Burger after school and there were school dances every week.
I always knew it was a fantasy, I think. Elizabeth and Jessica were perfect, and their looks were always a big part of that. As a quiet, chubby, dark-haired girl with glasses, I definitely noticed how each book was sprinkled with frequent, lengthy descriptions of the twins’ incredible beauty. Who could forget their long, silky blonde hair, wide, aqua-blue eyes, sweet, heart-shaped faces and “perfect size 6” figures? (When the series was re-released a few years ago, the girls were whittled down to a “perfect size 4”- but I won’t even get started on that.)
Looking back now, there are obviously things about the whole Sweet Valley franchise that are seriously problematic. Francine Pascal and her team of ghostwriters did a great job of hamming up the virgin/whore complex. The whole series was based on the idea that the twins were opposites- serious, responsible Liz was the angel who could do no wrong, and Jess was the wild party-girl who dated a different boy each week. Pascal herself has actually referred to them as “the good and bad sides of one person.” Their best friends were similarly polarised- Lila Fowler as the gorgeous rich bitch, Enid Rollins the dull but dependable drip. Other girls seemed to serve mostly as cautionary tales, like Robin Wilson, the token fat girl who then lost heaps of weight and became acceptable, or Annie Whitman, also known as “Easy Annie”, who was the town slut until a nice boy came along and taught her about self-respect. The books did touch on serious issues—there was racism, date rape, even suicide attempts- but they were always dealt with in a very moralistic, sometimes offensive way. People who do drugs die; people who ride motorcycles end up in comas. But fat people can lose weight and sluts get reformed- and if nothing else, life in Sweet Valley is never dull.
I was pretty excited when Sweet Valley Confidential was released earlier this year. This time, it’s a real grown-up novel—though it’s still as hilariously badly written as the teen series- set ten years after the sisters have graduated from Sweet Valley High. But everything’s kind of bleak. Jessica’s stolen Elizabeth’s boring, long-term boyfriend, Todd Wilkins, and is about to marry him, so Elizabeth has run off to New York and refuses to talk to her. So they’re both miserable and mopey—Elizabeth even cries after every orgasm, as we’re told within the first few pages. This is not the Sweet Valley I remember. It’s almost like old Francine is trying to teach us a lesson- like, “Haha, remember how you wanted to be like them?” As Jessica says, “Life was wonderful and simple when I was queen of the prom, when all that seemed to matter was how cute you were. And I was very cute. Just thinking about those days that are so gone depresses me. Everything depresses me today. Especially my own life.”
Of course, everything works out all happy and perfect in the end, but it just didn’t satisfy me the way it used to. Just as real friends grow apart, the twins and I have gone our separate ways, and you can’t go back. But even though the feminist in me shakes her head about it all, I still have a deep, nostalgic love for those girls and the friendship they gave me as a child. What they taught me about being “sixteen and perfect” was nothing like what I would eventually experience, but having them as my best friends was still pretty special.