Who is Penny’s secret love?
THIS IS REAL.
"When I see what kind of response this draws, I'll know whether there are really any boys around here with some imagination. Then we'll see."
When I started Book 39, I tweeted sardonically to the masses: "Finally! A book about Penny Ayala!" And certainly, the book seemed doomed to lameness, much like Penny herself. But this is a book where the main character sells herself short, and I did the same to Secret Admirer. It is, in fact, the most well-written book of the series thus far.
As you may know, the Sweet Valley novels are ghostwritten. The bulk of what we know and love/hate about the books comes from a "plot bible" written by Francine Pascal, but the books themselves are written by other people, people who may or may not be named Kate William. During my St. Martin's meeting, we learned that the first Sweet Valley Twins novel was ghostwritten by Ann M. Martin. Seriously.
Whoever penned Secret Admirer was a golden god. Granted, it shouldn't be too hard to make the story of the Oracle's new personals section scandalous and interesting, but our writer went beyond interesting into the realm of true style. For starters, there are at least three, and perhaps as many as FIVE storylines here (as opposed to the traditional two; see sidebar). The main one is about, yes, Oracle editor Penny Ayala. Penny doesn't really know much about attracting guys and (better yet) she doesn't care to attract one just for kicks. She does, however, long (secretly) for someone intelligent and interesting to love. Someone who doesn't care what she looks like. Someone who'd still like her for her mind even if she was some kind of hunchback.
Literally, she pretends to be a hunchback. She writes an extremely tongue-in-cheek, smart-but-guarded personal ad, knowing that any guy who responds will be more interested in meeting someone with a smart sense of humor than attracting a shallow beauty. It's a genius plan, except for one thing: This is high school. Boys are stupid.
Enter that jerk Kirk Anderson (see the previous entry's "B Story"). Kirk's got a posse of guys eager to follow his confident lead, and the gang is eating up the new Oracle personals section. Heartily amused by Penny's strange and clever letter, but of course unaware of who wrote it, they (mostly Kirk) decide to engage her with clever responses, penned by Anderson devotee (and former Jessica-dater) Neil Freemount. Neil, you may recall, is the only person Kirk knew at SVH before coming to the school, but this obligatory friendship doesn’t sit so well with Neil, who is starting to think that the confident Kirk might not be so great. But for now, he’s part of the club, and as a studious fellow, he replies with gusto and flair to “Quasimodo’s” personal ad.
Here’s one of my favorite examples of the unexpectedly poetic writing Book 39 is full of. Jessica sees Kirk and the gang fawning over the school paper and wonders what they’re up to. We read, “She looked over her shoulder for a moment, caught a glimpse of Neil Freemount in Kirk’s orbit, and felt a twinge of surprise.”
Orbit? Twinge? I love you, book. I love you for not saying “next to” and “felt surprised.” Thanks for caring, book.
Penny is, of course, a lovely girl that is only avoided by boys because her intelligence and maturity makes her unapproachable. It’s a problem, let me tell you. As our writer puts it on page 12, “Penny Ayala had a pretty face and was tall and thin, but she didn’t take pains with her appearance. She was always dressed neatly. But she didn’t use any makeup or wear flattering styles.” What is this blasphemy, Penny?!? It seems a little nutty, but add to this the fact that Penny is awkward and weird around most guys, and we’ve got a real situation on our hands. So much so that when Penny and the Kirk Cabal agree (via letters) to meet at the mall, Kirk is in stitches upon seeing her. (“‘Can you imagine going out with her? You’d probably end up writing a term paper on dates!’ ‘Or reading War and Peace!’”) Of course, he and his troops are hidden from Penny’s sight, so she just thinks she’s been stood up. She’s heartbroken nonetheless, and Neil (who was NOT so disappointed to see pretty-faced, tall, thin, smart Penny at the food court) feels like total dog meat. And rightly so. What a dick.
Consumed by guilt and kind of in love with “Quasimodo,” who he now knows is really Penny, Neil apologizes in letter form without Kirk’s knowlegde, makes up a reason why she was stood up, and begs her to meet him at the Dairi Burger for a second chance. Neil does right by Penny and himself by telling Kirk et al (who are also there, of course) to shove off, and by telling Penny the truth about how the letters were meant as a prank, but ended up touching his heart, and maybe his crotch a little. He doesn’t say the crotch part, but we’re talking about a 17-year-old boy here, so I’m making inferences. Context clues, people. Everybody’s happy!
You want more quotes? I’ve got ‘em this time, folks. I like to think they’re all a little special, hinting at a deeper understanding of the characters and readers on the part of our author. For example, when Elizabeth finds out that Kirk is behind the letters to Penny, she conspires with Enid and Jessica to teach Kirk a lesson. My first thought? “Enid and who now? Jessica hates Enid! And vice versa!” But look how this is handled: “Jessica grinned back at [Enid]. Their mutual antagonism dissolved as their overpowering dislike of Kirk Anderson and his arrogance forged a truce between the two girls.”
Mmmm, mutual antagonism. It tastes like sweet wine on my tongue. I’m going to make a t-shirt to wear around town as a testament to this moment in prose.
How about a funny quote? I like this description of what’s happening at the beach on a weekday afternoon: “Bill Chase and Ken Matthews were waxing their surfboards; cheerleaders Jean West and Sandra Bacon were also there working on their tans, as all of the cheerleaders did when there wasn’t practice.”
:D Yep, cheerleaders love tans.
I’m saving some more quotes for Part 2 of the Book 39 entry. Yes, there’s a Part 2. There’s a whole other chunk of this story that I haven’t even mentioned yet! But I will leave you with a little story of deviousness that taught Kirk Anderson a lesson…kind of. As usual, everyone’s preparing for yet another dance at the end of this book, and Elizabeth (with Enid and Jessica, as mentioned earlier) plot to spoil Kirk’s evening. They use some photos of a model named Erica Hall to pique Kirk’s interest, telling him she’s a cousin of the Wakefields who’ll be in town the weekend of the dance. Kirk takes the bait, and tells Liz to set them up. Liz thoroughly warns Kirk that her cousin is fickle at best and might not even want to go to the dance with him, but he’s confident that one glance at his picture will have her yearning for more Kirk.
Elizabeth devilishly calls Kirk later that week telling him Erica would love to go with him, but again warning that it might not be a good idea, as Erica is kind of unpredictable. Unshaken, Kirk seals his own dance-night doom. Of course, Erica was never coming to the dance. The girls didn’t even know her, much less invite her to date Kirk. Ha-ha. I’m sure the girls meant to knock Kirk down a peg, and maybe they succeeded, but the main lesson here may be that vengeance is sweet. And getting stood up sucks. Oh, and that girls can be liars too.
More wisdom from a divine sage.