— The twins of Sweet Valley are back, and like women who grew up with their series of novels, they aren't teens anymore.
In Francine Pascal’s latest, “Sweet Valley Confidential,” Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, the quintessential California girls, are now 27 and enjoying adulthood — orgasms and all. They still look the same, with straight blond hair and aqua eyes, but Elizabeth has left the sunny west coast to live in New York, and is no longer on speaking terms with her sister.
"Confidential" is the first new installment since Pascal finished her "Sweet Valley High" series in 2003, and it has already caused a buzz among 20- and 30-something women looking to relive adolescent memories, escaping to a world where the sun always shines and the nice girls usually win. Even the cover still bears the instantly recognizable “Sweet Valley” lettering, but the trademark pastel has been swapped for a more adult, and provocative, hot pink.
“In the last five or six years I have run into a number of women who are now executives, business people, journalists, adults in their 20s and 30s, and they have been so excited to talk to me about Sweet Valley High,” Pascal, 72, told TODAY.com. “I was amazed at how involved they still were with this series, and thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring the characters up to where these women are now? I wanted this book to surprise people. And although I didn’t want the characters to grow up to be the people readers expected, the seeds of their lives today were sown in the beginning of the series and I didn’t want to deviate too far either.”
Before “Sweet Valley Confidential” was completed, it was already causing a stir on the Internet, where the first chapter — in which Elizabeth talked intimately about her sex life — was published.
“People wrote to us saying they couldn’t believe that 27-year-old Elizabeth has orgasms,” says Pascal, a born and bred New Yorker with a thick accent to match. “But would they deny a 27-year-old woman the pleasure of sex? And ‘Sweet Valley High’ was not without sex. It wasn’t explicit but it was always there, because that’s normal life.”
The latest edition in the “Sweet Valley” franchise, which started in 1983, is the first that is actually written by Pascal herself. While she created the plots and characters for each of the other books, a stable of ghostwriters wrote the actual text.
“Confidential,” which hit bookshelves Tuesday, hasn't been a hit with reviewers.
“Make no mistake: This is a very bad book, bloated and silly and, worst of all, often quite boring. It's not as fun as you might think to finally read about Elizabeth having sex,” reported Entertainment Weekly.
The Huffington Post’s Mara Reinstein was just as tough. “Nostalgia has its merits, but some youthful classics aren't destined to age with me,” she writes.
For young women eager to get lost in the world they once loved, however, bad reviews don't matter.
“Oh how I have missed Jessica and Elizabeth, I am so glad to have you girls back!” writes one Twitter fan, with an excitement echoed in thousands of tweets about “Sweet Valley Confidential” on Tuesday. Two days in, the “Sweet Valley Confidential” Facebook page has more than 33,600 “likes,” and fans, many of whom have yet to even lay their hands on a copy, already begging for “Confidential” to be turned into a series.
Although Pascal hasn’t ruled out a sequel, she prefers to see how this book fares before beginning the next edition. Meanwhile, a movie version of “Sweet Valley High” is in the works, with the screenplay by “Juno” writer Diablo Cody already nearing completion.
Pascal didn’t set out to create an international sensation with the series. She always thought of herself as a more literary writer, she said. With the aim of creating a teen version of “Dallas,” Pascal wrote the first “Sweet Valley High” book without ever having been to California. Back then, she based her descriptions on what she had seen in the movies. The series quickly rose to the top of bestseller lists — a young adult genre feat — and went on to sell hundreds of millions of copies over the years. Though it was so popular it spawned its own TV show, reviewers of the books in those days were not all that kind.
But Pascal always valued her loyal readers over the critics.
“Over the years, I have received thousands of letters from readers and at least a quarter of them started with the sentence, “I used to hate reading,” she says. “It’s one of the greatest achievements for me, that I turned nonreaders into readers.”