Beyond the Sweet Valley

It was a teen publishing phenomenon long before Twilight and Harry Potter. Now, the kids from Sweet Valley High have grown up – and are stars of a new novel for adults. By Sara Lawrence

Long before Gossip Girl, years before Sex and the City, back when Twilight referred to that dusky time of day following sunset and Robert Pattinson was a twinkle in his father’s eye, before the words muggle, quidditch and Hogwarts entered the general lexicon, pre the internet, were the halcyon days of the Sweet Valley High series of books for ‘young adults’.

Created by the American author Francine Pascal, who presided over a host of ghost writers, the franchise launched in 1983 and ceased publication 20 years later with 184 titles in the main series, various spin-offs and more than 250 million sales to its name. Every story revolved around beautiful blonde identical (“right down to the tiny dimples in their left cheeks when they smiled”) 16- year-old twins, Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, and their lives in the ridiculouslyperfect fictional town of Sweet Valley, California. Where the sun always shined and the gang of preternaturally pretty, popular high school students drank milkshakes at Dairy Queen, hitched lifts in local heartthrob Bruce Patman’s Porsche (with the licence plate 1BRUCE1), hung out on the beach, went to proms, diners, malls and endless pool parties at Lila Fowler’s palatial home.

In Sweet Valley, as far as her young female readers were concerned anyway, Pascal presented a vision of teen America at its most alluring. Chuck in all sorts of interesting topics such as high-school romance, divorce, friendship gone bad, anorexia and underage drinking – not to mention stalkers, kidnapping and one (sorry Francine) ill-judged serial killer – and teen girls everywhere were hooked, line and sinker.

Silly, frothy and undeniably girly the books might have been, but there’s no arguing with a publishing phenomenon. Sweet Valley High was the first teen fiction to burn up The New York Times’ bestseller list alongside Norman Mailer and John Updike. Mention the names Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield to women between the ages of, say, 25 and 39 and chance are a large number will gasp with delight before falling into an orgy of nostalgia at the very idea of those protagonists.

The main draw of the characters, you see, was that despite their identikit physical looks, aquamarine eyes, blond hair – the cascading kind – and “perfect size-six figures”, their personalities couldn’t have been more different.

Elizabeth was the responsible, hardworking – some might say geeky – and more moralistic twin. Jessica, meanwhile, loved nothing more than riding around in cars with bad boys, looking hot and getting stuck into scrapes that Elizabeth invariably had to sort out. So while studious Elizabeth largely represented goodness, party-loving Jessica was often branded (thanks to her own foolish, impulsive but amusing actions) with badness.

But in a world better acquainted with vampire romance, the all-singing, alldancing HighSchool Musical kids and the sixth-form years of a certain boy wizard, why should these California girls be newsworthy? Because a new book, Sweet Valley Confidential, is set to go on sale in the UK next week.

“I’ve had thousands of queries from fans over the years wondering what Jessica and Elizabeth would be like as adults. Well, Sweet Valley Confidential should give them all the answers,” says the 73-year-old Pascal, a New Yorker who’d never visited California when she created her very own Valley girls but was inspired by movies and her three daughters. “And I can guarantee they will be very surprised. Actually, more like shocked.”

She’s not wrong. Sweet Valley Confidential, already causing a media storm in the US, where it was released two weeks ago, is set a decade on on from when we last caught up with the Wakefield twins and a hell of a lot has happened. I’m sure I’ve become more discerning as a literary critic since I was 12 but this really surprised me. I won’t spoil the plot but I will tell you that it is dark and edgy and surprising and I couldn’t put it down.

The twins are 27 and Elizabeth is mentioning orgasms in the first chapter. They listen to Beyoncé, read Perez Hilton and are on Facebook – but are no longer friends with each other.

Tons of old Sweet Valley faces turn up, including Enid Rollins, now a rightwing gynaecologist, and gossip queen Caroline Pearce, who hasn’t changed a bit. A Wakefield goes gay and Alice, the twins’ normally mild-mannered mother, even tells someone to “F*** off”. Amazing stuff – which totally works. And given the reception that the book has already received, it’s no surprise to hear a film based on the twins is already in production, written and produced by Diablo Cody (Juno) and Mark Platt (Legally Blonde).

It seems likely to fare better than the Nineties’ TV show based on the books, which was relegated to Saturday mornings in the UK.

If you are not familiar with Pascal’s oeuvre, or if you are, for example, a man, then I cannot guarantee that this novel will hold the same fascination for you that it does for Sweet Valley-loving sisters. But if you did spend any time at all on Team Elizabeth or Team Jessica, then be warned that this wander down nostalgia lane could send you wild with excitement. Get reading girls: you too can relive the joy.

‘Sweet Valley Confidential’ is published by Arrow on 14 April (£6.99). To order a copy (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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