Monday, April 4, 2011

Bittersweet Valley

The first Sweet Valley High book I bought and read was Kidnapped, the thirteenth in the series. I was 13 when I attended the book fair at Sacred Heart School and spotted the cover among an array of Judy Blume books I'd already read. I hadn't heard of SVH before that moment, but the synopsis intrigued me enough to pick up a title and start a series midstream. At that time, with a series like SVH, one could do that and not feel lost or like you have missed important information early on. Each of the subsequent Sweet Valley books I read after that (and 1-12 which I snapped up at Sam's Club) featured the same exposition that set the scene in the Wakefield home. Sometimes I wondered if Francine Pascal just had those passages in a special file that she lifted and pasted into new books where appropriate.

Of course, in the three or four years I read these books (by sixteen I'd moved on to Agatha Christie and Beatles biographies) I came to discover Francine likely didn't physically write every single book. I seem to recall on the books I owned that the actually scribing had been attributed to an Anne Williams, or William or Williem or something similar. No doubt many Anne Williams labored over word processors in a literary sweatshop while Francine supervised - how else could these books be cranked out once a month (and this was before the franchise splintered into college, tweens, and kindergarten stories)? I would estimate that during my peak SVH interest I got to about book 50 or so when the love affair ended. Reading around romancelandia, I have gathered that SVH served as the gateway for Harlequin and other imprints. I ended up drifting toward Stephen King and Dick Francis.

Even though I'd stopped actively reading SVH, once in a while I'd check the YA section in the stores for new releases and flip through to keep up on the stories. Sort of like when you stop watching a soap but still check Soap Opera Digest to see is Stefano is still dead, or still alive. Then Salem becomes populated with people you don't know or care about, and you finally let it go. It was around this time SVH came up with that ridiculous Margo the evil twin story, and I decided the shark had been jumped. Not that Francine should have worried - there was still the show and a hefty back list, which I'm guessing has not aged well.

So when I discovered this "adult" revival of the franchise, I must admit I was excited. In theory this is a great idea to not only bring Sweet Valley's main characters into the present day, but mature them and challenge them with real, adult problems. Not that original series was all rainbows and unicorns: there was some pretty heavy stuff there, too...what a thirteen-year-old Catholic school student perceived as heavy, anyway. People died, did drugs, ran away from home, wrecked cars, did stuff I'd never think to do.

Yet with a SVH reboot, you stand to attract younger readers already engrossed in the pretty little liars and sparkling vampires, and you catch the interest of people like me who may want to know what happened to old friends. In theory, this book should have killed.

It didn't, though. Jessica and Elizabeth, the perfect twins everybody wanted to befriend, are pushing thirty yet are still mentally in high school. They are also very unlikeable now. In fact, I cannot find one person to root for. There are so many things wrong with this book I don't know where to start - the head-hopping, the switch from third-person in the present day to various first person POVs in flashbacks, and the constants exposition and telling instead of showing. The book reads as though one of the Anne Williamses had been plucked from 1983 to write the book; only the occasional reference to Facebook clues the reader into a sense of time. It's like the book can't decide to be for adults or teen readers. It's a hot mess.

What tore it for me, though, was the casual, brutal disposal of a character I had liked in the old series. He appears only briefly in the story but is essentially trashed and tossed for the sake of moving along the story. I didn't enjoy reading this at all, and I'm disappointed. This had the potential to transition into a new series - instead it's a miserable book full of miserable people who don't manage to pull it together until the end. Even then, the epilogue predicts more trouble.

Bittersweet, indeed.

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