Friday, April 29, 2011

You Need a Dramaturg: "Sweet Valley Confidential"

Whoa. I just finished reading Sweet Valley Confidential, the 10 years later follow up to the Sweet Valley High series (even though the series began in 1983 and then through the '90s, into the early 2000's, Jessica, Elizabeth and their friends never aging past junior year of high school, except to move into some spin-off series. So really, it should be 27 years later).
It was probably the worst book I've ever read. Chunky, clunky prose. Awkward character descriptions. Horrible sex scenes. Wow did this book ever need a dramaturg. Or you know, an editor.

For those of you who never read Sweet Valley High or any of its spin-offs (Kids, Twins, University, Senior Year. There was also, I believe, a television show), it's the story of two identical twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, who live in a small town in California. Though the twins look alike and each have "perfect size 6 bodies" (though in the follow-up, they just have perfect figures, "size 6" no longer meaning what it used to), they are nearly opposites. Jessica's the flirty one, Elizabeth's sensible, a writer. Jessica moves from boy to boy, Elizabeth has been matched with Todd Wilkins since forever.

Until Confidential, that is, when Jessica and Todd rekindle some affair they apparently had during senior year of college, fall in love and send poor Elizabeth fleeing to New York, where she sleeps with some other guys, cries after sex and finally ends up in love with, of all people, Bruce Patman. Oh and, along the way, gets a job writing for some off-Broadway review magazine, despite the fact that she has no experience in theater. And Pascal's version of the theater world looks a lot different than any version I've experienced.

What? As a mythology and its own world, the world of Sweet Valley was convoluted to begin with. There were over 100 books in the series, during which the twins and their friends remained in 11th grade. And a lot happened in those 100+ books. Elizabeth was kidnapped, got in a motorcycle accident, their older brother's girlfriend dies of leukemia, Jessica wants Todd (the subject of the first book, actually), and this isn't counting the non-canonical thrillers and special editions. The twins have witnessed more murders and gone on more summer vacations than is actually possible, even for fictional characters.

Okay, so the convoluted, twisted mythology of the series really doesn't have much to do with how actually terrible the follow-up book is, but it doesn't help. Pascal tries to rehash a lot of the characters' backstory, a kind of wink-wink "remember this" type thing that makes the book drag on, especially because she repeats the same things over and over. Yes, Patman was the spoiled rich boy, Caroline Pearce the relentless gossip, Winston the nerd. Got it. No need to say it more than once.

I've no problem with the storyline of Jessica and Todd ending up together. Sure, it's a little icky and a little jarring, as if Pascal is betraying fans of the series, pulling out this quick twist to ostensibly make a buck when women aged 20 to 40 shell out the $20 for the book. The plot twist doesn't exactly help the series' mythology, it doesn't really give the readers any sort of pay-off, but it's not terribly out of line.

Pascal didn't so much write the other books in the series, or maybe I was too young to notice how shoddily composed they were. The SVH and other series books were "created" by Pascal and written by a rotating team of writers. Confidential is written by Pascal and well, she really needed a ghost-writer on this one. The constant repetition makes it seem as though she's reminding herself of the story of these twins or, to put a more negative spin on it, makes it seem as though she's getting paid by the word. A decent editor could have gone in there and hacked the book down to 100 pages and it would have been much more enjoyable novel with a much more engaging story. I swear, when I read about Jessica's guilt for the 100th time, I nearly threw the book across the room.

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