Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sweet Valley... Cry?

You can’t go home again. But that doesn’t stop us trying.

Earlier this year bookstores across the world took delivery of a slim novel called Sweet Valley Confidential — a title that may mean little to many but means a great deal to women of a certain age and disposition who had the date March 29 circled on their calendars for months beforehand.

The novel in question was the long-awaited (uh, by someone I assume) follow-up to the insanely successful Sweet Valley High series of books that shaped the teenage lives of millions growing up in the 1980s and 1990s.

The series should never have worked, focused as it was on the lives of nauseatingly beautiful and irritatingly popular twin sisters growing up in California. With one twin a boring goody two-shoes (Elizabeth) and the other a thrill-seeking tramp (Jessica) many of the books culminated in preachy conclusions that had readers believing girls who rode motorbikes were doomed to wind up — at best — in a coma and — at worst — suffer an identity crisis that would have them believing they were their own twin sister. Seriously, that actually happened.

But the series was hugely successful, running to more than 150 books, spawning a TV series (god that was bad), a slew of spin-off books and leaving in its wake a generation of fans whose formative teenage years would be forever entwined with that of the Wakefield Twins.

So perhaps we should be thoroughly unsurprised that publishers wanted to cash in on the nostalgia of those fans with the release of SVC, which picks up ten years from the end of the series.

The assumption at the heart of that decision — that the girls who once gasped over Jessica’s selfishness or swooned over Elizabeth’s weirdly sexless relationship with her beige boyfriend Todd will want to know what happened next — was probably not entirely correct. But even if the book does make squillions (and, er, the jury's still out on that one) there's something a little bit gross about dipping so thoroughly into the nostalgia well.

Nostalgia itself is a positive thing — even science says so.

After a brief stint in the 17th and 18th century where nostalgia — the term comes from the Greek words for return (‘nostos’) and pain (‘algos’) — was viewed as a serious illness modern science has gone in the other direction and decided that it’s good for us. Studies have shown that reminiscing about happy times past can give us a sense of belonging, increase self esteem and boost our happiness. According to a recent study daydreaming about happy past memories can even help us deal with fears about our own mortality, imbuing our empty, pointless lives with something resembling meaning.

But — and it is a big but — there is a difference between indulging in nostalgia and trying to recreate the success of a past phenomenon whose time has come and gone.
Even the most devoted fan of the original SVH series would have to concede that the material has not aged well. Attempting to drag the Sweet Valley universe into modern times is only going to expose all the flaws that fans failed to notice as innocent teenagers: that the Wakefields were vapid brats, that Jessica might have been a sociopath and that having one sip of alcohol in the front seat of your boyfriend’s convertible will not necessarily turn you into a drunk slut who is throwing her life away.

Though it shames me to admit it, last night I finished reading SVC and it was... one of the weirder books I've ever read. I genuinely couldn't work out whether it was deadly serious (Liz cries after she orgasms? Really?) or taking the piss (I'll admit it, I laughed when the Wakefield's insufferable mother, Alice, screamed at her husband to "bring out the fucking cake, Ned" after her mother's 80th birthday party goes off the rails).

So the book didn't make me want to kill myself. But neither did it fill me with a warm glow of love for the original material. Instead it made me faintly embarassed to have SVC sitting in my bookcase alongside the likes of War and Peace. Doubly so as I've never, er, got around to reading War and Peace.

If we have learnt nothing from the travesty that was the last three Star Wars movies it is that some things are better left alone.

We need to preserve our happy memories where they belong — in the past — and where we can enjoy them through rose-tinted glasses, not try to cash in on those memories, fail, and ruin them for good.

No comments: