Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sweet Valley High Series Overview

The Sweet Valley High series began in 1983 and ended in 1998.  When I was a teen, I read most of Sweet Valley High #1-32 plus most Super Editions that were published up through 1988.  I quit reading the series in 1988 when I read the back cover synopsis for #41 and learned that Regina Morrow dies in #40 due to a rare reaction to cocaine.  I was devastated, since Regina was my favorite character.  I felt like the series had betrayed me, so I no longer wanted to read the books.

I revisited the series around 10 years ago and read up to #35 at that time.  I refused to read any higher since I wanted to pretend that Regina doesn't die.  Furthermore, I did not like the cover art changes and refused to consider reading any higher-numbered books.

I found that during this most recent reading that I was no longer as emotionally connected to the characters, so I did not mind reading past Regina's death.  I had purchased the entire series, although I did not know how far I would get.  I have never liked the cover art changes of the higher-numbered books, but I was open to reading them so long as I was able to enjoy the stories.

I ended up reading the entire series, including most of the special editions.  The books I elected not to read are the six secret diaries books for the twins and the four sagas that feature the past history of the prominent Sweet Valley families.  The entire set consists of 181 books, so I read 171 of 181 books.

During this reading, my feelings towards most of the main characters shifted somewhat from how I once felt.  Here are my opinions of the main characters.

Elizabeth Wakefield - I like Liz of the early books, but Liz from the last part of the series is awful.  I hate that Liz.

Jessica Wakefield - I still like Jessica as much as ever.  I don't like her outright mean stunts, but aside from those, I greatly enjoy her escapades.

Steven Wakefield - I liked him okay when I was a teen, but I now find him quite boring.

Enid Rollins - Enid has always been boring.  The funny thing is that I am more like Enid than any other character.  However, I wouldn't want to read about myself, so there you go.

Todd Wilkins - I liked Todd when I was a teen, but I find Todd of the early part of the series to be boring.  The Todd of the later books is boring and a loser.  He's a loser because he forgives Liz for cheating on him in every book.  He also cheats on her sometimes, but he thinks that's okay.

Jeffrey French - Liz should have stayed with Jeffrey.  The main flaw in this series is that we don't get enough of Jeffrey.

Bruce Patman - I like Bruce.  Sure, he's arrogant and not somebody I would want as a friend.  But Bruce is a lot of fun.  I enjoy reading about him.

Lila Fowler - I used not to like Lila that much.  I now consider her a goddess.  She tells it like it is, and the reader does get to see that Lila has a vulnerable side, which is why she acts like such a snob.  Lila is another person I would not enjoy in real life, but in a book, she is awesome.

Regina Morrow - Regina was once my favorite character, but I now like her no more than any of the other characters.  My teen mind did not realize how unrealistic and superficial the treatment of her deafness is.  Now that I can see that, I do not like Regina as much and did not mind reading about her death.

Mr. Collins - I always liked Mr. Collins, and I still do.  However, when I read the books this time, I found him a bit creepy at times.  It didn't help that I read some online reviews mentioning Mr. Collins' pervy behavior.  He does seem to like Liz a bit too much in the early books.

The Sweet Valley High chronology is very confusing, since the set consists of 143 numbered books plus 38 special editions interspersed throughout the set.  I will only mention the numbered books in the following summary, but each section of numbered books contains many unnumbered special editions.  It would be too cumbersome to try to list all the special editions in the label for each section.

#1-39 from 1983 to 1987:  These are the books from before the death of Regina Morrow.  The series is completely innocent at this time.  Nothing is a big problem.  Even when characters are nearly raped, they shrug off the event like it was nothing.  Students haze each other, but this seems to be a normal activity with no consequences.  No one gets charged with assault.  These are the most idealistic books in the series.  Watch a music video from the early 1980s like Madonna's Borderline or Material Girl, and you get a clear picture of what these books are like.  The books are very much a product of the time.  These are very good books.

#40-94 from 1987 to 1993:  The series still has the same overall premise and quality as the original books, but it has begun to tackle some harder issues, like homosexuality and interracial families.  Rape is no longer considered an act that a girl can just brush off as nothing.  Hazing is still accepted as normal, but at least the characters see it as somewhat of a problem.  Liz becomes a feminist and protests against beauty pageants and soap operas, since she sees both as demeaning to women.  #94 marks the end of the canon Sweet Valley High books.

#95-100 from 1993:  Beginning with these books, the series switches to a miniseries format, with most stories spanning multiple books.  The series also gets a new look and a new attitude.  This group of books is unlike all others in the series.  Liz drives drunk, Jessica's boyfriend dies, and the twins have a murderous doppelganger.  These books are deeply depressing and don't fit in with the rest of the set at all.  I do not like them.

#101-128 from 1993 to 1996:  These books vary widely in quality.  Some books are very good while others are awful.  Some of the writers clearly did not understand the Sweet Valley High premise and how to write the series.  That kind of problem is always the fault of the person in charge of the series, so someone wasn't doing their job.  During these books, Liz's personality shifts where she constantly cheats on Todd, even though she is supposedly committed to him.  Todd and Liz break up in practically every book, but somehow, they end up back together.  I never liked Todd, but it was during these books that I began to hate him.  I also began to hate Liz as well.  Oddly, Jessica calms down slightly in these books and is somewhat more stable.

#129-143 from 1997 to 1998:  The cover art changes to photographs of the stars of the Sweet Valley High television series.  Most of these books are not good and are rather tiresome.  Devon Whitelaw arrives in Sweet Valley, and the love triangle between Devon, Liz, and Todd is awful.  The series should have been ended rather than being allowed to deteriorate to this extent.

I cannot understand why Liz is stuck with Todd for most of the 181 book series.  I feel that this was a big mistake.  Liz and Todd's tiresome relationship and Liz's odd personality change are the two largest contributing factors to the decline in quality of the series.

I do understand why Liz gets back with Todd when he comes back from Vermont, since it makes for a good story line for Liz to dump Jeffrey for Todd.  I don't understand why she is stuck with Todd from #59 through to the very end of the series, especially since she cheats on him constantly from #101 on.  Liz is supposed to be a character who does the right thing under all circumstances, or at least that is Liz at the beginning of the series.  Liz of later in the series has got some serious problems.

I read an interesting opinion about Liz in the comments to a now-defunct Sweet Valley High blog.  One person theorized that Margo really does switch with Liz in #100, which would explain Liz's permanent change in personality.  That person made a comment that went something like "Well played, Margo."

I find that theory rather intriguing, although I don't believe that Margo actually makes the switch.  After all, we get Liz's point of view many times during #101 and up, and besides, in Return of the Evil Twin, Margo reappears and definitely had not taken Liz's place.

I do believe that one can conclude that the terrible events of #95-100 had such a profound effect on Liz that her personality shifts permanently.  After all, Liz drives drunk in those books, through no fault of her own, and her passenger gets killed.  Those events would cause psychological problems.  Furthermore, Jessica suffers the death of her boyfriend in those books, so this could explain why Jessica is slightly calmer in later books.

I enjoyed reading through the entire Sweet Valley High set, although the best books are the canon books, #1 through #94.


Amanda said...

I agree with most of your assessment of the books. I read up until 115 when they first came out. The 95-100 books seemed like a direct response to the teen books of the time, edgier. Sweet Valley High was being forgotten. The 95-100 books reinvigorated it at the time (from what I remember). Unfortunately while I enjoyed them at the time, it dramatically changed the characters so much that after the mini series was over, I found I no longer recognized it and no longer found it nearly as enjoyable, so I stopped reading them. It was more Lois Duncan alternating with situational books tamer and less believable premises than the beginning of the series. Plus I never liked the change to photography.

sax player said...

Just curious, but why did you skip 10 of the special series? You were so close to reading all 181, it seems like a shame to stop 10 short...

Jennifer White said...

I have hundreds of books on my reading list, so I don't waste time reading books that I'm not going to like at all. I tried to read the first saga about the Wakefields, but I found it terribly boring. I tried to read the first secret diary book, but I did not have patience for revisiting past events.

I was already halfway sick of my SVH reading experience by the time those books appear in the set, so trying to read them might have caused me to quit reading the set. It's better to skip a few books than end up stopping short of reading the set by 50 to 75 books. I am quite pleased with myself that I read 171 of 181 books, even if others might think I failed by not reading every single one of them.