I’m tired of being the bad twin, Jessica thought. Sometimes I wish I’d never been born. - p.16
I think I'm losing it. Over the course of these 21 volumes, I've felt a lot of surprising emotions toward almost every character in the town of Sweet Valley, CA. But my feelings toward one particular character, Jessica, have stayed relatively constant – in short, annoyance, frustration, disgust, disdain. But this volume had me feeling a totally new emotion for Jessica: sympathy. That's right. Sympathy. For Jessica Wakefield.
What is this world coming to?
As you might imagine, this sympathy would have been impossible if Jessica had not undergone a significant personality change for the duration of this book. It actually began, like most Sweet Valley plots, in the previous book, when Jessica began to feel like her family saw her as such a screw-up that they'd basically written her off. Now, you and I know that the Wakefield family is perfect, and such feelings are patently absurd. But, failing to see how personally Jessica had begun to take their every action, the Wakefields did act pretty callously toward her in the last book, and that behavior continued in this volume, Runaway.
Runaway starts with a depressed Steve Wakefield taking a break from school because he's too depressed about his recently deceased girlfriend to study. Elizabeth thinks Jessica should cheer him up by inviting him to a party at Cara Walker's house, but Jessica is afraid he'll think she's trying to set him up with Cara, which she's tried before. Liz convinces her otherwise, but at dinner that night, when Jess asks Steve to come to the party, he lashes out at her for being so insensitive and conniving. Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield jump on her, too, criticizing her surely devious intentions. To make matters worse, when Elizabeth explains that it was really HER idea, the family is cool with it. Jessica bitterly considers the way her family always assumes the best from Elizabeth and the worst from Jessica. You and I know that they have good reason to behave that way, but one has to agree that such behavior is not exactly fair.
This scene was a contributing factor to Jessica's personality change, but it was not the true catalyst of the change. The thing that really got to me, and that apparently got to Jessica as well, was the cooking debacle. In Book 20, Jessica took gourmet cooking classes, and aspired to prepare fancy meals to impress her family. Unfortunately, she accidentally served them bad clams at the first dinner she prepared for them. Ever since then, the family cannot stop making ridiculous "jokes" about their safety every time Jessica offers to cook (or, in fact, has already cooked) another meal for them. This was bad enough in the previous book, when Jessica's big, carefully planned dinner for her parents' anniversary was casually dismissed by Ned Wakefield (Dad). Though she was most definitely overreacting, Jessica's disappointment about her parents' inconsiderateness was understandable. And she felt pretty strongly that if Elizabeth had been the one who'd offered to take a second stab at dinner, Mom and Dad would have accepted. She's got a point.
The Big Dis in Runaway is a continuation of this plot. In a renewed effort (unnamed to her family, however) to prove she can be a good person like Elizabeth, she surprises her family with a lovely chicken dinner. But sure enough, every one of her family members (ok, not Steve) has some snide comment to make about how they're not sure they can take another one of her meals. A short scene from page 65: Elizabeth: “Here Dad, you start.” Dad: “Perhaps I should check my will first.” Yeesh. Then they get involved in a conversation about Ned's current case, which Elizabeth really wants to be involved in. Jessica isn't even a part of their conversation, and ultimately never gets thanked for the meal she prepared. Which, incidentally, did NOT make anyone puke.
All of these crises may seem sort of minor, but for Jessica they add up to a giant vote of "no confidence" from her family members. She sulkily resigns herself to an attitude of "they'd be better off without me" (also, the more dramatic "I wish I'd never been born," as referenced at the top). Since she doesn't feel comfortable sharing her feelings with her bitchy friends, Jessica really doesn't have anyone to turn to for consolation. She's convinced herself that her family doesn't care, but even so, she probably would have ended up spilling it all to Elizabeth if she hadn't conveniently found a new sympathetic figure at the Dairi Burger. I'm talking about Nicky. He's a cool guy who runs with a rough crowd (the "Shady Lady crowd," for those of you who are up on your Sweet Valley places of business), but Jessica feels that he has a heart of gold underneath his free-wheeling exterior. She begins to spend time with him and finds out that she was right. She also finds out that a lot of his rebellious behavior stems from his rotten family life. Surprise, surprise.
Of course, it wouldn't really be a Sweet Valley High novel if my sympathy for the characters wasn't poisoned by their own overreactions. Here's how it goes down in Book 21. Nicky and Jessica bond over not being wanted in their own families - that's understandable. Their bond becomes so close that when Nicky tells Jessica he's planning to quit school and leave for San Francisco, he asks her to go with him. She's flattered, but politely tells him she'll think about it, realizing that her situation is not as dire as his. And near the end of the book, Jessica sees firsthand just how unwanted Nicky really is. After the two get into a minor car accident, Nicky's parents don't even ask if anyone is hurt. Nicky's father angrily tells his son that he can't leave soon enough, since he's nothing but trouble. I was sure that this display would make Jessica see concretely just how good she had it, and that she should just talk to her family about their behavior. I was wrong.
While Jessica does resolve to discuss her feelings with her parents, she also romantically ponders how nice it would be to run off and start fresh. When she approaches her parents to talk to them, they tell her it will have to wait, as they're in a hurry to get to work. She tries with Steve, but he's got to run, too. Finally, Jessica goes to Elizabeth to spill her guts. Elizabeth assents, but not before looking at her watch. That small gesture is too much for Jess, who pulls a nevermind and stomps off to write a farewell note to her hateful family.
The last few chapters of Runaway contain a fast-action race to find out where Jessica has gone and how she's getting there. Needless to say, the Wakefields hunt her down at the last minute, both acknowledging that they were being really insensitive to Jessica's feelings and proving to her that they really do love her in one fell swoop. Happily ever after…until the next book, at least. Such is life in fictional preteen suburbia.
As much as I'm tempted to complain about how unlikely this whole scenario is, I can't shake the memory of dozens of girls who ran away from their own perfectly normal families when I was in middle and high schools. It never made sense to me when they did it, either. Could it be that the Sweet Valley crew is more in touch with teenage girls than I am on this count? I kind of hope so. Maybe some girls of 1985 were really touched by Runaway, not seeing its numerous coincidences and exaggerations through the cynical eyes of a worldly 24-year-old. Maybe YOU were one of those girls. And if so, I truly hope that you can join me today in a committed affirmation of how utterly absurd this and every other Sweet Valley High novel truly is.
We've made it through the wilderness. We've come full circle. Congratulations, everyone.