She swore she was going to make this relationship work,
even if she had to turn her whole personality inside out to guarantee it.
- p. 11
Every Sweet Valley High novel has a B story. In the early, iWeb days of The Diaries, I often put the B story in a little box to the side of the main entry. B stories are usually silly and fun. You might think that in a gargantuan 100s-of-books saga like the Sweet Valley High series, the B story in one book would become the main topic of the following book, but that almost never happens. Usually the next book in the series is introduced via an out-of-left-field page or two at the end of a given book. For example, at the end of the absolutely insane Hostage (#26), in which Regina Morrow is kidnapped after returning from Switzerland, Elizabeth overhears Suzanne Hanlon saying "Ken just adores classical music, don't you Ken?" and immediately forgets all about Regina's recent trauma and starts worrying about Ken's potential future romantic troubles (which go on to star in #27, Lovestruck). So, while there is a through-line to these stories, and every volume contains at least a few references to events from past books (the books surrounding Regina Morrow’s death are particularly serialized), most of them stand alone.
Playing for Keeps, however, is an exception to that trend. If the chapters in these books had titles, Chapter 1 of Playing for Keeps would be called “Previously on Sweet Valley High…,” so if you haven’t refreshed your memory about Slam Book Fever, you might want to do so now. I’ll wait.
Pretty nuts, right? Now we can proceed.
Playing for Keeps finds Jessica continuing to bend over backwards to fight off her “Biggest Flirt” reputation – a reputation that her newfound love, the new-to-Sweet-Valley AJ Morgan, has heard about but never seen evidence of. Jessica intends to keep it that way, because she’s sure she’s in love with AJ, and equally sure that if he knew what a flirt-slut/boy-crazy tease/general bitch Jessica really was, he would cease to like her.
Story-wise, I see two main ways this reputation-change plot could unfold:
(1) Jessica learns how to make healthier, kinder decisions about how she treats boys, rival girls, and herself, and ends up becoming a more well-adjusted and mature person because of it (see Annie Whitman, Robin Wilson, Johanna Porter)
(2) Jessica, by suppressing her true personality, makes everything worse until she finds herself in a situation where she must choose either to be herself again or to lose everything she was trying to gain (see Enid Rollins, Ken Matthews, though neither case is as much fun).
Delightfully for us, Playing for Keeps chose path #2. And it could never really have been any other way. Jessica could absolutely stand to be less of a flirt, but the entire Sweet Valley franchise rests on the duality of the Wakefield twins. Jessica must be the Id to Elizabeth’s Ego, or the series cannot continue.
This is not the first SVH book to confront Twin Duality In Crisis . Need I remind you of Elizabeth’s post-coma personality shift in book 7, Dear Sister? In that story, when Liz began behaving in an insanely Jessicafied manner, Jessica must step up and be more responsible and Liz-like to keep things in check. The big difference between that plot and this one is that, in Dear Sister, Elizabeth wasn’t TRYING to act like Jess. it was the coma! It warped her mind! It made her do crazy things! In Playing for Keeps, Jessica is doing her damnedest to act like Elizabeth. And boy, does she do a shitty job. So shitty, in fact, that it makes one wonder how just how much of a lame, party-pooping, wet-blanket Jessica sees Elizabeth to be.
To put it simply, Jessica SUCKS in this book.
How I wish I had the time, budget, and cast to dramatize an early scene in this book for you. But I don’t have those things. What I do have, however, is an MFA in Screenwriting. So, for the first time EVER, I’m going to script-ify a moment from our tale in an attempt to help you appreciate its hilarity. All lines of dialogue are straight from the book (though I’ve added some punctuation to enhance clarity). Put your script reading glasses on everybody! This is gonna be fun!
It becomes clear early on that Jessica is taking her goody-two-shoes act much further than would appeal to any hunky jock, even one who likes quiet studious girls. As evidenced by the above scene, she wants (or rather pretends to want) to study at the library all the time, and she works really hard to make every conversation about serious and un-fun topics. Worse yet, she starts writing really god-awful poetry.
“And knowing Jessica, Elizabeth doubted that she was about to read a masterpiece. Actually, she didn’t know what she was about to read, but she forced herself to keep an open mind for her sister’s sake. Smiling reluctantly, she took the poem and read it.
Time is a grinding wheel of merciless pain
We are trapped in our lives
until the hour of death.
But love breaks our chats and lets us fly
into the universe
Where everything is real and alive
Elizabeth kept her expression rigidly neutral as she read Jessica’s poem. Nodding thoughtfully, she read it again and tried to come up with something encouraging to say about it. Unfortunately, all she could think to suggest was instant incineration.
- p. 35-36, emphasis mine, because LOL
So Jessica’s impression of Elizabeth — a serious, studious, writer-type – is coming off like an absurd caricature of a melodramatic, emo weirdo. But if Jessica’s behavior leaves us wondering what she really thinks of Liz, the book flat-out tells us what Liz thinks of Jessica, starting as she writes in her diary, “deep in thought,” about Jessica’s bizarre new faux-personality:
If I were Jessica – the old Jessica – I’d do something really sneaky to straighten things out. The old Jessica would try any scheme if she thought it would work. Anonymous letters, starting rumors, manipulating people…
Elizabeth paused and looked back over what she had written…Describing Jessica’s devious ways brought on a wave of nostalgia…Sneaky, manipulative, scheming – she loved and missed that Jessica so much!
- p. 114
Fascinating, right? At the end there, in the same breath, Liz admits that the “real” Jessica is a horrible person AND wishes for that Jessica’s immediate return.
If you’re like me, you expected Elizabeth to sweep in and save the day by out-Jessica-ing Jessica. And sure enough, in this scene, Liz briefly considers impersonating Jessica in an attempt to regain twin equilibrium. But she ultimately decides that this tactic would only make things worse, especially if her impersonation of Jessica were anywhere near as tone-deaf as Jessica’s attempt at behaving “like Elizabeth.”
At first it seems odd that Elizabeth wants Jessica to drop her charade so badly. After all, isn’t jess’s “normal” behavior the source of most of Liz’s problems. But , brilliantly, as the book unfolds, an emery arises that only a full-powered, bitch-mode Jessica can hope to defeat.
Enter a trio of ladies named Lisette, Nadine, and Pamela Janson.
Diehards may recognize the name “Lisette.” Lisette’s is a shop in the mall that is both super popular and super expensive. The author will often use Lila Fowler’s casual mention of yet another dress or bathing suit from Lisette’s as a way to showcase what a jaded rich girl she is. If you’re an EXTREME diehard it’s possible you might recall that “Nadine” is the designer – and eponymous brand name – of some of the finest fashions Lisette’s has to offer. And it’s just been announced that Lisette’s is hosting a competition to find a fresh-faced ingenue to become the face of the Nadine brand. All her friends can see right away that Jessica would be a shoe-in to win the whole shebang…the or at least the old, normal Jessica would be. This current, weird Jessica, is all “I don’t know, guys, what would A.J. think? He wouldn’t like the kind of girl who wants to be a fashion model. I better not.” I know. Gross.
Now, before you go thinking this A.J. Morgan is some kind of monster, keep in mind that Jessica has never given A.J. a chance to weigh in on anything regarding her real personality. He doesn’t know it exists. Jessica can (rightly) sense that she’s losing ground with him, but she doesn’t seem to understand that it’s because she’s acting like such a total bore.
Enter the aforementioned Pamela Janson.
Pamela Janson is a dirty whore. She is a man-stealing witch. And she’s the only thing that can get Jessica back on her game: a worse Jessica.
Ah, children. Are you ready for a Diaries Twist? I wrote all of the above over SIX MONTHS AGO. And I had big plans, you see. Plans to tell you all about how once Pamela Janson enters the Nadine's modeling contest, ELIZABETH of all people convinces Jess that she HAS to enter as well, and Jessica does so, even though she's afraid it will give A.J. the wrong idea. I wanted to write at length about the sociological and gender-politics implications of these issues and how, though we laugh at Jess, these dynamics persists 30 years later. Most of all, I wanted to describe to you -- in detail -- how Pamela tries to out-Jessica Jessica, sabotaging all Jessica's outfits and finally spilling ice water all over Jessica's perfect white one piece right before the final beachwear showcase. Oh, readers. It was glorious.
And then I got some real work. Real screenwriting work! Alas, once again, as easily as it re-entered my list of priorities, it the Diaries slipped back off again.
I am grateful to Roxane Gay for indirectly reminding me of my little baby website. I can see now that the #1 thing holding me back is my own perfectionism and desire to provide a complete, detailed recap of each book. I still would love to provide such a thing. But you know what would be even better than 200 theoretical perfect, complete, hilarious recaps? Any number of ACTUAL posts about these damn books!
So, without further procrastination, I will simply present to you a scene from near the end of Playing for Keeps:
"Oh, Jessica, I'm sorry." Pamela's voice oozed insincerity.
Jessica held her arms very still at her side. Ice-cold water dipped down her entire body, and her filmy beach wrap clung to her in huge wet patches. For the moment, all she could think about was all the times in the past few weeks when she' wanted to speak out and hadn't. She was through with playing the sweet, understanding type. This was all-out war.
Drawing a deep breath, Jessica said, "That's it, Janson. I'm sick and tired of you trying to ruin everything I care about, you hear me!"
..."Give me a break, Jessica," the girl scoffed.
"Give you a break? Are you kidding? I"ve give your every break there is, and you still can't get what you want without sneaky, dirty tricks! And you know what? I think you helped me out today, too! You thought I'd fall apart when my clothes did, didn't you? Well sorry, Pamela. I still looked better than you did."
- p. 148-149
Jessica keeps yelling at Pamela, calling her out specifically for all the costume-ruining she's been doing. Unbeknownst to Jess and Pam, their argument can be heard by everyone in the audience. And, when the curtains part, it can be SEEN by the audience, leaving no doubts as to who's been sabotaging whom here. Better yet, when soaking-wet Jessica, having come back to herself, walks the runway, she looks sexier than ever. Of course she does. She's a mostly nude teen in a wet bathing suit. Even so, let that be a lesson to you: be yourself, fuck 'em all, look hot no matter how they try to hold you back.
At the end of the book, Jessica has won the day. And she's won A.J. as well, though I imagine that, now that she's her "old self," that relationship will be over pretty soon. As it should be. You do you, Jessica Wakefield. You do you.
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