Will an engagement ring come between Maria and Michael?
So in my junior year of college, I met a handsome young Wisconsonite. He was a jock but he loved Dostoyevsky; he was a genius but he wasn’t afraid to ask what a word meant. One day, he told me that part of him wished he’d gotten married in high school, run off with his bride and built a cabin in the woods. Oh, be still my 20-year-old heart.
Even at 20, though, I saw a flaw in his never-actualized plan. He was still only 18, still kind of an idiot. What would his 16-year-old self have done with a wife? Where would he have gotten a cabin? These questions were unromantic and hypothetical, so I didn’t ask them. But come on, Matt. No one gets married in high school anymore.
This was also true in 1987, but that didn’t matter to Maria and Michael. They were star-crossed lovers with dueling families! They were underage! They were practically Romeo and Juliet. Maybe they should have read that play through to the end, as it would have saved them some serious time and trouble. But then they wouldn’t have learned a valuable lesson, and neither would we have. Spoiler alert: the lesson is “you’re too young to get married.”
Maria Santelli and Michael Harris fell in love after their fathers (former business partners) had a huge falling out and forbade them from seeing one another (even as friends). Michael then proposed to Maria, determined to prove to his parents that the two were serious about their relationship (because that’s a super solid reason to get married) and then planned to tell the families. Maria thought this was a great plan – they were in love, after all, and all love leads to marriage, right? – but even at the outset of this book she’s beginning to think that it’s time they get this out into the open. It seems that Michael now has cold feet about breaking the news to their feuding parents, and wants to wait until the time is right. This is what their first fights are about. Yeah, they had their first fight after getting engaged.
The engagement is hot gossip at Sweet Valley High, partly because Maria hangs with a gossipy crowd: she’s a cheerleader. The squad (especially Jessica Wakefield) is all totally enchanted with the romanticism of a secret engagement, but when sensible, never-cheering Elizabeth Wakefield catches wind, she is dubious. Aren’t they a little young? Elizabeth gets further involved when she finds out about a further complication. Maria has been coaching Winston Egbert to help him become liaison to the PTA for the student council (I know, right? What a random office.). Winston has begun to harbor a bit of a crush on Maria, and Maria really enjoys Winston’s company. Michael seems to be preternaturally aware of this mutual affection, and thus throws a little fit whenever Maria tries to help Winston with anything. Trying to be faithful, Maria extricates herself from the deal with Winston, and calls Elizabeth to get her to take Maria’s place. Liz is not her typical helpful self:
“In the first place, I’m way too busy to do anything for the next week. I’m helping Jeffrey with a special photo insert for The Oracle, and I’ve got tons of homework. I really don’t have time to take on anything else for the next few weeks.”
“You said ‘in the first place,’ ” Maria pressed her. “Does this mean you have another reason, besides being too busy?”
“Well, I just don’t think I should get involved. You and Winston had an agreement. It seems to me that you owe it to him to follow through.”
Oh, snap! Maria does not like this, her secret reason being that it sheds some light on how serious her problems with Michael are. She’s going to marry someone who doesn’t trust her? That seems a little scary to Maria. And no, the book doesn’t spell all this out persay, but we can read between the lines. It’s been 34 books, people.
There is another little plot device that helps move things along. Conveniently enough, it’s time for some members the junior class to take Mr. Jaworski’s special mock-marriage seminar. You know, like from that one episode of Saved by the Bell where Lisa is allergic to Screech. Same deal. Despite a totally random selection process, Maria and Michael end up paired together as a married couple for the exercise. They are then forced, like all the couples, to make a budget based on assigned careers and incomes, to make housing and parenting decisions, and to come to a consensus that they’ll present to the class.
Had Michael and Maria been good candidates for marriage, this would have been a handy opportunity to make some realistic plans. But they are, in fact, 16-year-olds. And they apparently know jack shit about each other. Simple discussions like “do we send our troubled child to a therapist?’ create serious drama.
“You’re not going to hit our son, Michael. He obviously needs a psychologist. Your attitude is probably why he’s doing this in the first place. Can’t you see this is just a cry for help?”
“That’s dumb,” Michael said. “I don’t believe that sort of stuff. It’s all pop psychology.”
The drama hits its zenith when the couple have a fight about Winston, about telling their parents, about everything, as they head to a party at Lila Fowler’s mansion. They enter sulkily only to find that it’s a surprise engagement party for them. And pretty much the whole junior class is there, including Winston. Win asks Maria to dance, and Michael throws a fit, announcing to everyone over the P.A. that he’s running for the PTA liaison position with Maria as his advisor. Winston, scandalized, runs out. Maria, outraged with Michael’s jealous move, runs after him. Michael feels like that’s the final straw and runs to the door to find…the Harrises and the Santellis! Their parents! They caught wind of the engagement party and came over to stop the engagement. They were a little too late.
In the end, Michael and Maria become just friends, the Harrises and Santellis mend their differences, and Maria and Winston start dating. Winston wins his election, and everything goes back to sort of normal. At least, normal for teenagers. Maria and Michael learned that teenage romance and lasting marriage are not always one and the same, and pledge to be more free-wheeling but realistic in the future. It seems like Romeo and Juliet are dead by their own hands. But, you know, figuratively.