Photo: Courtesy of Bantam Books
Calling the Sweet Valley High books “canon” is like being wistful for the nutritious qualities of Hostess Fruit Pies. But girls of a certain age still have the identical-twin image of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield permanently tattooed onto their brains. “Both girls had the same shoulder-length, sun-streaked blond hair, the same sparkling blue-green eyes, the same perfect skin,” chimes the opening page of SVH #1, Double Love (1983). And in each of 150-odd successive books, Francine Pascal and a cavalcade of ghostwriting minions point out the twins’ perfect, slim, size-six figures. So when the modernized 25th-anniversary reissues of Double Love and Secrets showed up on our doorstep the other day, we were plenty curious to see if the revamped SVH still mined the same guilty pleasure vein of faux-soap-opera innocence – though we weren’t thrilled that Leven Rambin’s the cover model.
But the wrong notes begin on page one when Double Love’s introductory (and heavily rewritten) mirror scene depicts Jessica’s “perfect size four rear view.” The bid for modernity now has Elizabeth blogging, her boyfriend Todd joking about the ESPN highlight reel, Jessica hunting for Roberto Cavalli dresses, and rich bitch Lila fishing in her Louis Vuitton backpack for a pot of Sephora lip gloss. But by bogging the stories down in endless brand names and pop-culture references, Pascal’s new-generation ghostwriter team misses the point: Liz & Jess were never meant to be contemporary, never mind middle-class West Coast Gossip Girls. They were bitchier Bobbsey Twins, more glamorous Donna Parkers, Nancy Drews who (usually) didn’t solve crimes. By staying quaint they stayed timeless, palatable to legions of fans wanting teenage kitsch with a dollop of earnestness. Aping the latest trends, on the other hand, not only pins the girls to our own uncomfortable era but also invokes moments of head-shaking at the SVH czars’ lack of pop-culture perfect pitch — as when Winston Egbert establishes his geek cred by invoking Heroes. Oh my, no. Winston Egbert would so obviously watch Battlestar. —Sarah Weinman