Are modern day teens woke enough to laugh at Suzanne Devlin? Were 12-year-old readers in the '80s indoctrinated into the grand tradition of victim-blaming and rape culture? Does Jessica Wakefield know what sex is? Marissa and guests William J. Stribling and Sinead Persaud answer none of these hard-hitting questions in this bonus episode. Instead, we stand in awe of the highly problematic, highly entertaining volume that is SVH #11.
The 2018 podcast episode about this book can be found here.
Even though I have lived within 50 miles of America's 3rd largest city for my entire life, there's just something about growing up in the Midwest that makes most other places seem glamorous. New York was always high on the list, but California pretty much topped it; the sun, the ocean, the mountains, the sun, everyone in the pool all year, movie stars everywhere, the palm trees, the sun...and I'm not just talking Los Angeles. The Tanners may have lived in San Francisco, but the Beach Boys didn't mind driving up there to pay them a visit. California is a big state, sure, but few images of it didn't seem appealing to me. Hell, why am I using the past tense? Years later, I am still bound for California, as are many of my Midwestern compatriots, and when I hear it described as "another planet", I want to buy my tickets as soon as possible. Maybe it's just a case of Californian grass being greener, but when I imagine Sweet Valley, it is definitely glamorous. It's downright perfect, a place where the rich people have estates instead of mansions and the middle-class drive Italian sports cars. And yet, in Too Good to Be True, Sweet Valley is constantly described as a boring little town. Somebody somewhere has forgotten about all the recent sexual assaults and comas! But if Sweet Valley is a boring little town, its podunk residents are the perfect prey for a villainess from the last remaining glamorous land: New York City.
Her name is Suzanne Devlin, and her plan is simple, if pointless. She will pretend to be the sweetest, most helpful girl on the face of the earth and in so doing she will lure the naïve townsfolk into trusting her completely. Then she will be free to corrupt their men and steal their jewelry! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Seriously though, this is the plot. And don't you start crying to me about spoiling the surprise - if the title alone weren't enough to let you know Suzanne would prove herself evil, you could take one look at the cover picture (above). That girl has "Bitch" written all over her face! And Elizabeth is looking quite suspicious. To be perfectly honest with you, this took a bit of the fun out of it for me. Since I knew "Suzy" was going to turn out rotten, I was a little impatient with the Sweet Valley crew for the way they worshipped her – and that's just what they did. They worshipped her because she was sweet, but mostly because she was beautiful. mature, and glamorous; because she was from New York City.
Speaking of New York City, this is where Jessica spends the duration of Book 11. While Suzanne comes to stay with the Wakefields, Jessica stays in the Devlins’ ritzy townhouse, and she is, of course, beside herself with delight. That is, until she realizes that in Suzanne's circle, everyone is a Jessica Wakefield - they all love to manipulate men, they all love to be condescending. Jessica is a big lake bass who suddenly finds herself in the Atlantic Ocean, if you get my meaning. I suppose that makes Suzanne's boyfriend, Pete, some sort of hammerhead shark who is pretty sure that this lake fish would be tasty...and that it so obviously wants to be eaten! Ok, leaving my super-apt analogy behind, Jessica, once again, has to face the fact that some boys think "yes" means "yes." When she tries to be coy, she ends up getting assaulted AGAIN. Someone (cough, Jessica, cough) needs to decide whether or not she's a slut already. Needless to say, she just wasn't fancy enough for the fancy New York fancy-pantses, and she has a miserable time because there's no one to pay attention to her.
Back in Sweet Valley, Suzanne tries to seduce super-hunk English teacher Mr. Collins. When he refuses her because she's too young and "acting foolish," she vows to destroy him. This girl, we come to see, is like a thousand Jessicas in one. She's so angry with Mr. Collins for not falling for her that she pretends he tried to rape her (!!!). This almost gets him fired, since everyone believes sweet, beautiful Suzy's absurd story. But when Elizabeth finds a necklace she lost in Suzanne's luggage, she gets the feeling that it all might be an act. FINALLY. It only took her 16 chapters to realize what she could have found out just by reading the title page.
Incidentally, have you ever met anyone from New York City, female or otherwise? Of course you have. A lot of people live there, and sometimes they leave. Perhaps you are, in fact, from New York City yourself. When I was in college, I swear it seemed like a good 20 percent of my peers were from New York City. And while all of my New York City friends had the annoying habit of being very sure that they came from the greatest city on Earth (this really pisses off Chicagoans - just ask any one from the Tri-State Area how he/she feels about the Macy's buyout of Marshall Field's), none of them ever pretended to be something they were not. Pretty universally, I think true New Yorkers loathe fakeness to a fault. That's why New York and LA are so far apart.
At any rate, as I read Too Good to Be True, I couldn't help but feel that the author had a deep-seated grudge against the Big Apple. There is no doubt in my mind that Suzanne and her friends are meant to seem horrible BECAUSE they are from New York. That's all the motive they need for drinking heavily, lying to an entire town, stealing, and being callous. This somehow strikes me as both stupid and hilarious. Hmm...much like my entire infatuation with the Sweet Valley series...oh, Francine Pascal et al, you've done it again! Well played, my mysterious friends, well played.
[Ed.: I've since learned that Francine Pascal actually lives in New York (when she's not in France). So...there goes that series. Unless this book's characterization of New Yorkers was the work of an angry ghostwriter.]