It was only a dream, she told herself sternly, willing herself to forget it all. It wasn't real. It was only a dream - p. 92
Oh, how I’ve missed you. I could go on at length about my move to California and my adventures in screenwriting (a personal tale of transformation that’s part Jessica, part Elizabeth). But suffice it to say: Now I have a master’s degree and am, at last, adequately qualified to rehash 30-year-old teen pulp novels for your reading pleasure.
Family Secrets probably started with the idea that if twins are fun, triplets are even funner - so why not introduce a new character, a relative who looks just like Liz and Jess? From this harmless premise blossoms a novel that, like so many Sweet Valley High volumes, is part schoolgirl romp, part chilling psychodrama.
The new character taking center stage is Kelly Bates, a cousin from Mom's side of the family who possesses those flawless size-six genes/jeans for which the Wakefield girls are so famous. Kelly is visiting from Tucson, temporarily staying with the Wakefields because her mother (who divorced Kelly’s father for murky, secret reasons) is getting remarried, and Kelly needs some time to “adjust to the idea.” The futility of sending a teenager to a neighboring state so she can come to terms with an incipient stepfather aside, Elizabeth, Jessica, and Kelly are thrilled to be reunited. They immediately start scheming up ways to shock their fellow students via Kelly’s surprise arrival and stunning resemblance to the twins. They’ll all go to school in the same outfit (“It’s kind of dumb, but it’s pretty funny, too, don’t you think?” says Jessica on page 15)! But the twins are a little weirded out by the way Kelly gushes over her absentee father at every opportunity, almost always at the expense of her single mother (Aunt Laura, Alice Wakefield’s sister). Kelly even plans to move in with Daddy Dearest as soon as he gets back from a business trip to France. But from what the Wakefields know of this Mr. Bates guy, they fear that Kelly’s putting him up on a pedestal of lies (my word choice).
"He lives near Sweet Valley, but for some reason my mother won't let me come out here. She's so mean! I miss my dad so much. But he'll be here next weekend for my birthday," she added with a glowing smile. "And he'll probably bring me a huge bunch of helium balloons or take me up in a glider or something. He's always doing these really off-the-wall things! I never know what to expect."
- Kelly raves about her father, p. 55 (spoiler alert: it doesn't go down like that)
At school, everyone welcomes Kelly with open arms (how could they not, given her blonde-haired, blue-eyed family pedigree), but no welcome is as warm as Kirk Anderson’s. Jessica, Elizabeth, and pretty much everyone else warn Kelly against giving “Kirk the Jerk” so much as a single chance, but she swears they just don’t know him like she’s come to know him after a few moments in his sexy presence. She looks past his constant lateness (he always has a good excuse!) and his regular fraternization with his ex-girlfriend, Marci Kaplan (“she really needed a friend,” he tells Kelly when he ignores her all night to talk to Marci), even throwing over über-eligible bachelor Nicholas Morrow as her date for the big costume party so Kirk can take her instead.
Oh yeah, did I mention the big costume party?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: how many damn dances can one school year contain? The answer - less than 200, more than 100 - seems to come from a realm untouched by the laws of space and time. But I digress. One of the schoolgirliest parts of Family Secrets details the conception, design, and construction of a three-person group costume for a big party at the country club. The girls decide to go as monkeys; if you ever wanted to dress as a monkey, Chapter 10 of this book doubles as an instructional costume-making guide. Specifically, they’ll be portraying See-No-Evil, Hear-No-Evil, and Speak-No-Evil. Jessica refuses to be Speak-No-Evil, not for the obvious reason (that she’s a hateful bitch) but because the she can’t bear the idea of keeping her big mouth shut for long enough to make an entrance at the party. They decide that Jessica will be Hear-No-Evil, Elizabeth (obviously) will be Speak-No-Evil, and Kelly will make her Sweet Valley Party debut as See-No-Evil.
GET IT???!?? 🙈🙉🙊
Kelly’s see-no-evil tendencies are the meat of the aforementioned psycho-drama element of Family Secrets. The "family secrets" in question seem to be secret even from Kelly herself, who is haunted throughout the novel (and presumably throughout her life) by a nightmare that she always forgets as soon as she wakes up from it. It's a nightmare that involves yelling, dish throwing, and hiding under the table. What could this nightmare mean?
After the dance, Kirk takes Kelly out to Miller's Point ("Jessica had told her all about Miller's Point: it was Sweet Valley High's premier make-out spot"), tries to get her to "share a beer" with him, and then tries to get a little under-the-leotard action.
I call this "I forgot your birthday; does that turn you on?" p.128
Kelly is psyched for making out with Kirk, whom she still sees as her dream man even after all his asshattery. But she doesn't want to split his nasty trunk-warm six pack, and she certainly doesn't want to round third base at their first trip to the Point. Kirk is not pleased. He actually says the words "You're not afraid are you? A big girl like you?" After a few more attempts at sweet talk ("I've taken you out a few times, I think it's time you start showing some appreciation," and finally "It's time to grow up, Kelly. Or are you just a tease?") she finally demands that he take her home. She even kicks him (if she hadn't, I was gonna).
Kirk responds by throwing an empty bottle into the distance. The sound of breaking glass freaks Kelly's beans and not in a good way. When she yells at him to stop, he only throws more bottles and the cacophony of crashing glass against stone sends Kelly into a full on panic attack. "The dam in her mind had finally broken," our author offers in a particularly dramatic flourish. She stumbles down the road, screaming and crying. Kirk has no fucking clue what's going on. In his shittiest move to date, he drives away, leaving Kelly stranded in the side of the road crying "Daddy! No! Stop it! Mommy!" She realizes that her nightmare was a memory. A memory of that terrifying night when she was a little girl and her parents fought and her dad threw dishes.
Personally, I think Kirk's rapiness and his comfort with leaving a crying, raving girl by the side of the road are far more terrifying than any distant memory of shattered china. But my parents never so much as yelled at each other in my presence growing up, so what the hell do I know? I was relieved when Kelly was safely returned to the Wakefields. She and her mom reunite and reconcile, Kelly having realized that she'd spent most of her life being a bitch to the woman who'd been trying to protect her from her "off-the-wall" father's temper. As an added bonus, Kelly leaves Sweet Valley and returns to Tucson, hopefully forever.
I'd like to think that some preteen girls out there read this book and were comforted in some way by Kelly's plight. Maybe they felt less alone. Maybe they felt like their parents and lives weren't so traumatic after all. Or maybe they simply realized that the boys they had crushes on were as bad as all their friends said. Maybe some of you were those girls. Kelly Bates waltzed into your life, had a bad dream, dressed like a monkey, got pawed at by a mean boy, recovered a repressed memory, and waltzed back out again, leaving you – and us all – changed for the better.
"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." - Penny, p. 30
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.