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Welcome back to *Cash Register Alert*, the newsletter about all things ‘90s and ‘00s nostalgia, named after the best sound on AOL Instant Messenger. Today is a special day, because we are hopping in the Fiat Spider and heading straight to the Beach Disco. Yes, I’m talking all things Sweet Valley, so buckle up! Grab your favorite purple sweater! And if you haven’t yet subscribed (it’s free!), pls do so below so you don’t miss a single trip down the ‘90s and ‘00s rabbit hole.
Ever since I started this newsletter, I’ve been excited about writing this post, but eventually started putting it off because there’s honestly so much to say. Where to begin in discussing Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield? It’s a pretty daunting question, but I suppose the only way to begin is the way that all the books started: with a painstakingly specific description of the twins.
Since most of the books could be read independently of one another and in any order, I guess it makes sense that they had to be written with the possibility that someone was entering the sunny world of Sweet Valley, California for the first time. Because of that, nearly every single first chapter was dedicated to letting the reader know that Jessica and Elizabeth look exactly alike, with golden blonde hair, blue-green eyes, tan skin, and they’re both — say it with me now — a Perfect! Size! 6! Of course, the similarities end there; Jessica is wild and carefree and doesn’t give a sh*t about school (but shoutout to the time she randomly got a perfect score on the SATs) while Elizabeth is studious and more serious.
I started reading these books when I was young — early elementary school, for sure — bypassing the age-appropriate Sweet Valley Kids and going directly to Sweet Valley High. To say that they painted a distorted picture of what high school was like would be an understatement. Multiple themed proms? West Side Story-esque rivals with other schools? Going out clubbing on a beach every Friday night? LOL dare to dream, 7-year-old me.
But that was definitely the SVH appeal — there was something tangible about the storylines, even though the characters’ lives were often so fantastical and out of touch. Sure, maybe none of us ever casually dated a werewolf or had an evil doppelgänger stalk us for weeks, but we definitely went through friend breakups, failed tests, or accidentally spread a rumor that got out of control. SVH had a way of blending the wild with the real.
And speaking of the wild...let’s just get into it.
So, remember the time Elizabeth got into a motorcycle accident and then basically TURNED INTO A DIFFERENT PERSON?
Dangerous Love and Dear Sister are two of my all-time favorite SVH books because they are SO out-of-control bananas. To recap, Liz’s boyfriend Todd (hang tight, I have more to say about him) decides to randomly get a motorcycle (because that’s a thing so many high school boys do). At first, Liz is furious because her cousin died in a motorcycle accident and how dare Todd do this to her?!?! But when Jess leaves her stranded and in need of a ride, she finds herself with no other choice than to get onto Todd’s bike (couldn’t she call her parents? A cab? Literally there are other options but ok) and of course they get into an accident and Liz falls into a coma.
SIDEBAR. Not to be glossed over is the section where Liz is unresponsive in the hospital and her doctor flirts with Jessica. Reminder, the twins are 16!!!!!! :(
The real kick of this storyline is when Liz wakes up from her coma, completely healthy but also with a completely different personality. The book makes it clear over several chapters that she’s even out-Jessica’ing Jessica, like when she decides to throw a pool party...and only wants to invite the boys at school. But the pinnacle of mutant Liz’s behavior is when she starts flirting with Bruce “1BRUCE1” Patman...TBQH the whole scene at Bruce’s beach house is all kinds of cringe to read today (Bruce needs a biiiig lesson on consent) and even at the time it was pretty risqué for a SVH book. Fortunately, things don’t progress too far because Liz accidentally hits her head again and — poof! — she’s back to normal. Science!
In general, the SV men were a whole lot of “meh.”
While we’re on the subject of Bruce, I just have to say — what did these Sweet Valley girls see in any of these guys? Bruce was obviously trash, and Todd was not much better. (Remember when Liz was on trial for manslaughter and Todd started hooking up with Jessica? Not sure how anyone comes back from that.) I get that Todd was supposed to be this handsome all-star basketball player, but he was also as boring as toast; the most colorful aspects of his personality were bad ones, like being jealous or possessive. Even Ken Matthews had his questionable moments of gaslighting behavior (though big shoutout to his poetry-writing arc when he fell in love with Olivia AKA “Freeverse” over an internet chat room — more on those two in a sec).
Also, listen, these boys were dumb as a rock. How many times did Jess and Liz pull twin switches on Todd and Ken, and they just made out with the wrong sister, completely clueless? There would always be some inner monologue where they’d think “Something feels ~*~*different*~*~ about her lol” but then they’d shrug and be like, whatever, let’s do some heavy petting at Lookout Point!
I can’t believe I’m saying this but Winston might have been the best Sweet Valley guy! Sure, he was goofy and weird, but he was also a lot nicer than the other dudes. When in doubt, choose the nerdy guy! The one with the sarcastic jokes! The one into comic books! The one — oh god is this where my Seth Cohen obsession originated? We’ll go ahead and save that for another newsletter issue; I digress.
Here’s the real question anyway: Where is the spinoff where the SV ladies just say f*ck it! and date each other? Here for a Jessica/Lila romance honestly. If anyone needs a ghostwriter for that, I’m your girl.
As the series went on, the plots got more and more unhinged.
I’ve written before about the absolutely chaotic evil twin storyline, and I have to just mention it again here. Over the course of the series, Jess and Liz find themselves in a lot of peril — serial killers! vampires! werewolves! kidnapping! — but truly nothing was more bizarre than when a random girl from New Jersey who just happens to look exactly like the Wakefield twins plans to move to Sweet Valley, kill one of the sisters, and take over her life. AND THEN it turns out that this girl ALSO has a twin? It was like a Pretty Little Liars episode up in there, everyone gets a twin!!!!
And then there’s the final mini-series bridging the normal SVH books and the “Senior Year” installments, where the twins have a huge party to celebrate their 17th birthday (never mind the fact that they had like, 23 proms, 10 summer vacations, and 15 Christmases throughout their junior year).
During their big birthday bash, there’s a huge earthquake that traps everyone in various parts of the Wakefield house; it’s incredibly dramatic and plays out like a disaster movie. Lila and Todd are locked in the bathroom and end up making out (as one does); Liz finds herself face to face with a rattlesnake (?!) in the pool; Enid almost gets electrocuted; Jessica tries to help a boy save his little sister who eventually falls to her death into a crevice in the road (this is never mentioned again BTW, Jess is truly a sociopath with no feelings).
But arguably the most intense subplot of Earthquake is when Olivia gets trapped underneath the Wakefields’ refrigerator for the entirety of the novel and dies a slow, excruciating death in front of Ken. I have a lot of questions about this — and I won’t even bother touching the fact that in her final moments, Olivia decides to quote William Blake — but my biggest one is: Why didn’t Ken seek help immediately? He sits there next to the fridge for 75% of this book, whispering sweet memories of when they first met in that poetry chat room, until finally he manages to tear himself away and track down an EMT. Idk who needs to hear this, but if your girlfriend is crushed underneath a refrigerator with literal bones sticking out of her body, get her some freakin’ medical assistance.
TBQH, the Senior Year books that followed were pretty good, and a lot more grounded (bad choice of words, sorry) than their predecessors. After the earthquake, the twins’ home is destroyed and they have to live with Lila for a bit (until Liz moves out because she loathes Lila so much), and there’s a whole new set of characters from a neighboring high school who are forced to attend SVH after their school was demolished. Let’s hear it for Conner McDermott, who is 10x hotter than Todd ever could dream of being! You know he would wear a chain à la Connell from Normal People.
Also, it’s important to note that none of this is to say that the earlier books weren’t weird AF. Never forget the Sweet Valley Twins Christmas special where Jess and Liz receive matching harlequin dolls that TRANSPORT THEM TO A FANTASTICAL KINGDOM for like an entire month. Honestly, that book deserved a Nobel Prize in literature.
Truthfully, I could wax nostalgic forever about Sweet Valley.
No joke, I could write an entire series of posts about this chaotic ‘90s relic. The fashion! (Purple everything for Jess, crispy khakis for Liz.) The romance! The drama! The many school nights spent kickin’ it at The Dairi Burger!
But I think what I loved the most about SVH while growing up was that it offered a fantasy of what was ahead. As a kid, I always looked forward to being older, and — as misguided as it was — the Wakefield twins and their friends felt like a crystal ball for what high school and teenage life would be like: spending time with friends, leaning into an identity, figuring out who I was supposed to be. You know, all the Sweet Valley things. Just with a lot less proms and murder.
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