(24 june 2010)
my beloved dear friend lara ehrlich has written a book. a phenomenally wonderful and amazing book. and when we gathered last weekend to review over mimosas and tots, i had one word of caution- that she needed to consider the book’s message about women and violence. because in a dark, dark book, that seemed to me the darkest part.
i said that then and i’m not so sure now. because i was thinking, at the time, only of the parents and the press. never once did i worry about the kids. because i think kids should be allowed to read whatever they want. and i think writers have an obligation to their young readers to- for lack of a less melodramatic phrase- take them into darkness.
because this is where we learn our lessons. these books of our youth.
i began reading sweet valley high at the ripe old age of nine. when, after a 4th grade field trip to the atlanta zoo, a friend handed me a copy of #7: dear sister.
knowing nothing of the motorcycle accident in #6: dangerous love that had put elizabeth wakefield into a coma and caused her amnesia and personality change in #7, my enthusiasm was largely motivated by a discrete notation in the front of each book announcing that it was intended for “age 12 and up.” i had been secretly listening to madonna’s true blue for months, but reading SVH three years before it’s publishers had deemed suitable seemed spectacularly more rebellious.
spurred by the same nostalgia for the recent past that inspired me to re-watch the entirety of dr. quinn and weep violently at nearly every episode’s astonishingly hokey yet unbearably heartwarming end, last summer i returned to sweet valley high. and like a reunion pre-facebook, i was shocked to the core by how everyone had changed.
the emotions and dramas of youth seem so indulgent when one knows how seldom high school relationships pan out. but the wakefields, they do not know this. and so by page 49 of #1: double love, jessica is crying “tears of angry frustration” and 66 pages later, even perfectly pulled-together elizabeth is “filled with despair.”
by the time #5: all night long– in which jessica stays out ALL NIGHT LONG with an older (read: 19) mustached man- rolled around, i realized my under-aged self had, to some extent, been oblivious to the dark side of sweet valley.
yeah, yeah, elizabeth is in an accident and tricia martin dies of leukemia, but what i absolutely did not remember was how terrible some of the boys were and how violent were their ends.
for instance, good old john pfeifer. in the awesomely titled #90: don’t go home with john, lila goes home with john and is nearly raped. but then john dies…
ronnie edwards, the first boyfriend of elizabeth’s bff enid, is characterized on wikipedia as “a highly scheming and very selfish troublemaker.” but then an earthquake hits sweet valley and he dies…
liz’s friend luke lives in london and is- inexplicably- a werewolf. until he dies…
poor jessica’s boyfriends fare the worst. sam woodruff is in a drunk driving accident. christian gorman is in a fight with kids from a neighboring school. inevitably, both die.
[dear wikipedia, thank you for having a surprisingly extensive sweet valley high listing and The Greatest Plot Summary Of All Time- “#122. A Kiss Before Dying The feud between Palisades and SVH reaches a deadly conclusion when Christian Gorman is accidentally killed, and Jessica wins the surfing contest.”]
in the face of all this death and squandered youth, i- like carrie bradshaw- couldn’t help but wonder… what does this mean? the fact that i loved a series of books in which- aside from todd wilkins- the recurring male characters who escaped violent death can be described as an “often drunk bad boy,” “a handsome jerk who was disliked by almost everyone,” and “a rich, handsome snob”?
ultimately, i’m pretty sure it means nothing and is useful only as an indicator of how uninterested i was in boys at the time and how much that has changed now.
because it was for different reasons that francine pascal’s sweet valley high was the most significant literature of my young life. namely, #40.
on the edge.
wherein regina, the deaf girl who just moved to town and had surgery to restore her hearing, is dumped by her boyfriend, gets in with a bad crowd, overdoses on cocaine and dies.
i was a deaf girl.
i had just moved to town.
i’d had surgery to restore my hearing.
i didn’t know it then but this would be the penultimate reading experience of my life. the ribbonless typewriter in extremely loud and incredibly close and the last three pages of the knight of maison-rouge were almost as impactful but only almost. and, really, nowhere near.
because nothing is ever so fresh or scary or vivid as when you are young and don’t yet have the words for it. when you are experiencing it for the very first time. the only first time. presumably that is why this silly book has stuck with me all these years.
before #40, i had not known i could die.