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.
It's the premiere of Season 2 of Sweet Valley Diaries! Let's celebrate by shipping Jessica to New York and getting beloved teacher Roger Collins fired for unspecified sex crimes!
Don't panic, everyone. Marissa and her guests, William J. Stribling and Sinead Persaud (of Shipwrecked Comedy!) are here to hold your hand until this nightmare blows over.
Welcome back to Sweet Valley.
My original recap of book 11 is here.
What's the secret that's hurting Kelly Bates?
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
Just then, the man stopped to hoist the load up, as if to get a better grip. Part of the green blanket fell back as he shifted the weight, and Jessica felt her heart–almost literally–stand still. A woman’s arm was clearly visible, hanging limply out from underneath the blanket. – p. 60
If you remember the later years of the Sweet Valley High series — or even if you've ever perused the list of book titles — you know that, at some point, things in Sweet Valley get nuts. Instead of semi-annual kidnappings and occasional deaths, these later books offer non-stop action, murderers, the infamous evil twins, and these Fear-Street-style plotlines sometimes span several volumes. Looking back, it's hard to pinpoint a single book that marks this shift into Crazytown. One candidate is Double Jeopardy, the first Sweet Valley "Super Thriller."
Just kidding. Suffice it to say, nobody dies. Except Adam's girlfriend. She's still dead.
Will Enid's life ever be the same?
It occurred to Enid that although she and her mother were bending over backward to be nice, her grandmother wasn’t even trying to meet them halfway. She was picky, demanding, crotchety…
Do you remember the first entry ever written here in the Diaries? It began, "As an introduction, Double Love sets one thing straight: Jessica Wakefield is a bitch." Well, as a book, Hard Choices sets another thing straight: Enid's grandma is a bitch.
I realize that's a pretty harsh description to assign to an old lady, but this book is clearly trying to prove little else. I mean, why else make this elderly woman, Mrs. Langevin, alias Nana, the catalyst for all of the problems in the book? She's breaking up Enid and her out-of town boyfriend Hugh (who I'd totally forgotten about), she won't let Enid or her mother (who has a sexy name: Adele) go anywhere without giving them a hard time about it, and she's keeping Enid from being involved in this week's B-Story. She sucks.
But let me back up a little bit. At the end of #42, we knew how thrilled Enid was that her grandmother would be moving in with her and her mother. Nana had been living alone in Chicago since her husband died, and Enid was sure that her grandmother would be much happier in Sweet Valley with the Rollins gals, and why not? Alone in a ghosty old house here in Chicago (it's sleeting here now), or with caring family in sunny California? Seems like a no brainer. (I may or may be bitter because of that whole winter thing.)
The beginning of Hard Choices finds us on the cusp of Nana's arrival. As soon as Nana gets out of the car after being picked up at the airport, Enid can tell something's wrong; grandma seems so...old! Enid's memories of Nana were of someone a little less frail. And way less plaintiff. This woman constantly mentions that she "doesn't want to be a bother" and yet manages to bother everyone at every turn. She doesn't feel comfortable driving in strange town, but she doesn't try to work her grocery shopping or senior center activities around that of Enid and her mom. Enid makes tea for her once, and now Nana expect it every day. She even convinces Enid that her mom's boyfriend is a dick, and to then convince Adele that Enid's boyfriend is no good.
Of course, all of this is frustrating to the reader as well as the characters. It's clear early on that grandma needs a stern talking to, but the younger women just can't help but treat her with constant (and increasingly resentful) deference. Poor Adele actually gets proposed to by her boyfriend, Richard, but can't bring herself to say use because things with her mother are so "complicated!"
Enid has a similar type of problem. Her boyfriend Hugh goes to nearby Big Mesa, and the two have been having trouble finding time to spend together. Enid is really excited when he invites her on this group camping trip, as it will be an extended period of togetherness on neutral ground. Mrs. Rollins, however, has been soured on Hugh by suspicious talk from Nana, and decides at the last minute that Enid can't go on the trip! She can't even get the message to Hugh before he arrives to pick her up, and he is, of course, pissed. Enid is, too, but she can’t really do anything about it.
As if things weren’t bad enough, Enid has been totally unavailable to work on this movie project that Elizabeth cooked (B Story) up because she’s constantly keeping her grandmother company. This is making Liz et al (but mostly Liz) rather worried about Enid, but Enid’s keeping any ill feelings toward Nana to herself, for the most part. That is, until Nana pulls some serious shenanigans. Despite not really being a part of the movie project, Enid is still looking forward to making things up to Hugh by attending the film’s premiere (at the Wakefields’ house) with him. Meanwhile, Adele is trying to make things right with her own boyfriend by attending a special awards dinner with him. Do you smell a problem yet? Well, Adele has actually foreseen the problem of leaving grandma alone for the evening (it’s not that she can’t fend for herself, it’s just that she doesn’t want to) and called a friend to stop by and hang out with grams. But Nana protests! “Don’t bother sending a stranger over here” she says. Adele says fine, and cancels, and after doing so, Nana drops the bombshell: “You’ll have to stay home now, Adele. I can’t be here alone. I might get sick.” (p. 130)
Why, at this point, doesn’t Adele say “that’s bullshit, Mom. You’re a grown woman, and you knew we had plans. Your choice was to have my friend come over and stay with you OR to be alone. You made that choice a minute ago and now you’re out of options” ? WHY?! I suppose it’s because such a reaction would have ended the book a chapter or two too early. Instead, Adele says “I’m sorry Enid, this is the last time” and rushed off to her date. Hugh arrives shortly after and is furious that Enid has broken yet another date. He storms off, and now Enid is furious with her obviously scheming grandmother and yells at her for being such a jerk. She even tells her she hates her! Then she, too storms out and sneaks into the Wakefields’ living room for the end of the movie. But she can only fume for a while before worrying that her unkind words have done some irreparable harm to Nana. She darts back home before Liz can stop her.
When Enid gets home, she finds her grandmother in fine spirits. She’s baking, in fact. The two make up, and then Hugh stops by to apologize for getting so angry. Enid’s mom is shocked to come home and find them happily munching away around the dining room table, but she rolls with it. And Nana announces that she’s sorry she was acting so strangely, that she was feeling sorry for her poor old widow self, and that she is now ready to face life again...back in Chicago. She’s leaving, just as things started to get not-awful.
All in all, this book was kind of a place-holder. Like, “We need to write about something this month, but we can’t have another kidnapping just yet.” And that’s okay, because I needed something tame to prepare myself for the insanity of Sweet Valley Confidential, which I promise to write about very soon. Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that Mrs. Langevin, a.k.a. Nana, did NOT make an appearance in that volume, so get your fill of conniving old lady now while you still can, people. It’s all sex and confusing relationships next time.
“Is Suzanne as perfect as she seems?”
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.]