Most of my female friends still can recite the Wakefield twins' description from memory: blonde hair, perfect size six figures, eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean.
That this description was drilled so permanently into our developing brains was less a function of its innate appeal, and more to do with the fact that it was repeated in every single novel in the Sweet Valley High series, created by Francine Pascal in 1983 and churned out with factory efficiency by a team of ghostwriters for two decades.
Unlike other books I liked as a kid, Sweet Valley had no storylines I could relate to, no heroines I could empathize with. The phrase "perfect size six" precluded identification with Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, and the gossipy, backstabby world they inhabited only served to make high school sound like the worst place ever. I did not conquer my shyness by learning to play the guitar and expressing my true inner beauty via song. (Glad it worked for you, though, Lynne). I didn't lose 20 pounds after being tricked into thinking I was invited to pledge a sorority. (Although, if Robin's workout plan had been available, I totally would've done it.) The few life lessons I did absorb were crappy ones: Despite deep-seated nervousness, my first line of cocaine didn't immediately kill me. (R.I.P. Regina.) There was one reason and one reason only that I read the Sweet Valley High books so avidly from ages 8 to 13: The hope that someday, somehow, someone at Sweet Valley High would have S-E-X. Not passionate makeout, not attempted date rape, but honest-to-god under-the-bra touching with no pants on.
And that's exactly why I picked up Sweet Valley Confidential: 10 Years Later, Francine Pascal's welcome cash-in on the raging nostalgia of two generations of women. Because finally, in this self-consciously modern new update, Jessica and Elizabeth are old enough to get a piece.
10 Years Later begins with a rift: 27-year-old Elizabeth has been living in New York since finding out that Jessica slept with her fiancé, Todd Wilkins. Now Jessica and Todd are engaged, and Elizabeth is nursing her pain, dressing all in black, working as a theater critic, and dabbling in casual sex. Awesome, right?
Well, sort of. The Sweet Valley High books were always romance lite, soap operas dressed down with training wheels and sparkly handlebar streamers. Now the training wheels are off, but it turns out Pascal has no idea how to write a sex scene. Here's one:
"They touched each other, the palms of their hands and tips of their fingers languidly caressing, exploring, like blind people, until there was nothing they didn't know of each other's bodies."
The idea of a blind sex grope is considerably less appealing than Pascal seems to think it is—but it's significant that the lack of hot boning is my main gripe about Sweet Valley Confidential. Bigger problems really should be the way a third-person present is spliced with first-person flashbacks, or the oddly repetitive prose, or the stilted attempts to make the character voices sound "fresh." But while Sweet Valley Confidential doesn't provide quite the, er, climactic reading experience my 12-year-old self always wanted, it delivers in the same way Sweet Valley High books always have: familiar characters (not a series regular goes unaccounted for), some tawdry drama, and the satisfaction of a predictable, hooky narrative that hits all of plot's basic pleasure centers. And, of course, the guilty pleasure of nostalgia indulged. Just bear in mind that Sweet Valley High books have always been a little trashy, and adjust those expectations accordingly.