Welcome to the winter holiday season! Just for fun, I read Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High: Super Edition Special Christmas. What a festive cover it has, making me giddy for snow and presents and sweaters.
Actually, it’s kind of funny that Elizabeth is pictured wearing a sweater because fictional Sweet Valley is located in California, and the Wakefield twins often spend the Christmas season tanning next to their swimming pool. Anyway. The basic plot of the novel is the twins are excited that school is out. Elizabeth’s steady boyfriend, Todd, who moved to Vermont in a previous book, is going to visit. Jessica wants to be named the Christmastime parade queen, and tryouts are soon. But then their parents invite an unwanted houseguest to stay for two weeks, and why would they do such a thing without consulting their children?
Firstly, Special Christmas lacks a good Christmas vibe. Every student receives a Secret Santa before vacation starts. They’re meant to give each other gifts for the week leading up to the annual Christmas party at Bruce Patman’s house — a mansion, really, because of course Sweet Valley has a couple of millionaire families with teens in public school. The only other Christmasy scene is when Jessica volunteers on behalf of her sorority to dress as an elf and help the mall Santa hand out gifts. Such a giving spirit is not common to Jessica, but she doesn’t want her sorority to look bad.
Nay, the focus of Special Christmas is on Suzanne, the unwanted teen houseguest. In some previous book, Suzanne was sent from New York City, where she lives with her inattentive and wealthy parents, to stay with the Wakefields in California while Jessica lived with Suzanne’s parents in NYC. Some kind of daughter swap, I guess. Suzanne’s father was friends with Mr. Wakefield in college, which is such a tenuous connection that I wasn’t surprised Suzanne was a holy terror during her visit. Not only did she steal from Elizabeth, she set up Sweet Valley’s most loved teacher, Mr. Collins, and accused him of trying to rape her. Because Jessica is in NYC, Elizabeth is alone with the devious Suzanne. Though Jessica never even met Suzanne, she’s angry on Elizabeth’s and Mr. Collins’s behalves. Suzanne must be dealt with this Christmas!
I was surprised — Jessica is a selfish character who gets out of facing consequences by manipulating the people around her, particularly Elizabeth. So, her anger over Suzanne accusing Mr. Collins of rape threw me for a loop. After all, Jessica did the same thing to Elizabeth’s steady, Todd, in the first book, Double Love. There’s a tiny part in my brain saying, “No wonder people don’t believe rape victims. Back in the 80’s everyone was using it as a revenge maneuver.”
Instead of focusing on Jessica’s selfishness, Pascal made her a warrior for good. Suzanne seems different, like she regrets what happened on her last visit and may even be seriously ill, yet Jessica refuses to listen, instead assuming her twin and parents are soft-hearted dupes that need protected. She schemes with everyone who remembers what a terrible person Suzanne was the last visit to make the girl feel unwelcome. Classic Jessica, with a dose of good intentions. This is exactly what Pascal does to make readers continue with the series. Just when we can’t stand what a wench Jessica is anymore, Pascal has the teen be a misguided, noble do-gooder to shake things up.
The other subplot of the book is Todd’s return from Vermont. Elizabeth is both excited and apprehensive. A high school relationship on opposite sides of the country is sure to feel strain, but Pascal has always presented Todd and Elizabeth as “steadies,” the kind of couple you want to end up together so badly because surely they will love each other forever. And so predictable Elizabeth is given a twist: she considers breaking up with Todd. Some evidence it’s over includes being unable to think what Christmas gift would be good for Todd (I wouldn’t let Christmas gift problems be a sign to me, as I have no clue what my own husband wants). But she’s also not sure if there is a spark of attraction there anymore, either. Keeping readers on their toes, Pascal is!
And going through Special Christmas with adult eyes makes it obvious something is physically wrong with Suzanne, that she’s there to apologize to everyone she previously terrorized, all without telling them she’s sick because then they would pity-forgive her. How noble! But without telling people she’s sick, we get loads of accusations of faking an illness, which sounds weirdly relevant today as I see videos online of people grilling folks who park in a handicap accessible space without a wheelchair, or if someone is chronically ill but young, accusing them of exaggerating because they’re “too young to be ill.”
While Pascal shaped a story that shook up the typical dynamics of Elizabeth and Jessica, everyone is still trim and slim with sparkling eyes, or has an athletic build and speaks in a “husky” voice. However, she could have made a larger focus on the Christmas theme! I missed out on something jolly, something with more presents and volunteering and family gatherings.
*Fun Footnote: My spouse has trouble sleeping, so I suggested he stop looking at a device and instead read a book he would never be interested in. He made it through Double Love and half of Who’s Who. I asked for his opinion, and he said: “Jessica is a colossal asshole. And Elizabeth is the perfect opposite, just fitting in with that other gear. Elizabeth could have smothered Jessica in her sleep years ago and lived a happy life. Instead, it goes on for eleventy-thousand books.”