Title: Centre of Attention
Summary: Stepping over the line…
Jessica Wakefield just can’t stop her wild imagination. Her mother is very ill, and Jessica thinks it’s much worse – she might even be dying! Soon, the news spreads all over Sweet Valley Middle School. Elizabeth, Jessica’s twin sister, is furious, but Jessica loves being the center of all that attention.
Even the teachers feel sorry for Jessica, and they let her skip her homework and be excused from tests. And now, Jessica has a chance to get the lead in the school musical – if she can manage to take advantage of everyone’s sympathy just one more time.
Tagline: Has Jessica finally gone too far? [Wing: WHAT DO YOU MEAN, FINALLY?!]
Oh my god, I am going to hate everything about this. Not only does that premise sound terrible on its own, but I spent more than a decade watching my mother die a slow, painful death, so I am particularly touchy about sick mother/dead mother stories.
(At least I’ll probably be back to my hatred of all things Sweet Valley, which I understand a lot better than my unexpected moments of love for it.)
[Wing: Note from the future: It gets real in here, from the text and the recappers, especially about parental death, heart ache, and abusive childhoods.]
We open on Jessica Wakefield riding her bike down her street, and I am still so enraged from that summary that I hope she gets run over by a parade of cars. She does not, instead, she lets herself into her house, and the first thing she sees is Steven, her 14-year-old brother, standing by the fridge, a basketball under one arm, gulping a soda.
Jessica asks him to guess what she saw at the mall; his guess is a UFO. Does that stand for Unidentified Fucking Object, Steven who is generally far too obsessed with his sister Wakefield? But no, she found the most perfect sweater. Steven mocks her and bursts out laughing; when she tries to smack him, he runs out the back door. She thinks she should have known he wasn’t the person to talk to about clothes, because all he cares about is basketball and food.
She finds Elizabeth and their mother Alice talking in the den. Elizabeth loves working on the sixth grade newspaper, The Sweet Valley Sixers, but wants to write other things, too, including a horse story like Black Beauty. Elizabeth (or maybe I should say ghost author), have you actually ever read Black Beauty? It is a heartbreaking story for a horse lover. You’d be better off aiming at something like The Saddle Club or The Black Stallion. [Dove: Or if set in England like Black Beauty: the Jill books (Ruby Ferguson) or the Eventing Trilogy by Caroline Akrill. The latter being one of my favourite sets of books of all time.] Alice is very encouraging (decent parenting going on here, actually), but Jessica rolls her eyes because Elizabeth is so dull, all she ever talks about is reading, writing, and the newspaper. That’s not true, Jessica! She also talks about how snobby and gossipy she thinks the Unicorns are while she is literally being snobby and gossipy herself.
(Plus it’s obvious that any given character can only have one or two defining traits and/or interests.)
Insert identical twins, opposite personalities, yadda yadda yadda. This time, we get that Elizabeth is thoughtful, while Jessica is impatient and moved more quickly. BUT DEEP DOWN, THE TWINS WERE THE BEST OF FRIENDS, LA DI DA. (At least this is different from them claiming to be BFFs, when they both act like someone else is their actual BFF pretty much constantly.)
Jessica barrels into the room and interrupts them to tell them all about the beautiful sweater she found at the mall. Elizabeth gently teases her that it’s probably purple, because the Unicorns wear something purple every day, which Elizabeth finds silly. That’s kind of rich from the girl who wears her hair the same way every day now. [Dove: Spoilers: all the way through high school too.] [Raven: This is a concern that I, as a 43-year-old bald man, cannot take seriously at all.] [Wing: … that is truly sad. The high school bit, not the bald man. Raven’s quite distinguished.]
The sweater is pale violet with a white unicorn embroidered across the front. That sounds cheesy as fuck, Jessica, and the only thing it’s missing is glitter or at least silver and gold lame on the horn. (I fucking love it, I hate to say.) She tells her mom that if she got it, all the other Unicorns would be so jealous. That’s a great reason to buy something and absolutely won’t lead to a lifetime of unfilled dreams and far too much debt trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Alice shoots her down, though, because she had a rough day at work and she’s really tired. She wants to talk about it later; she’s not even cooking dinner, but instead Ned is bringing home Chinese food, and Alice is going to take a short nap before he comes home. I would snark about Ned bringing home take-out when it is his turn to provide dinner, but that’s exactly what I do, too, because I hate to cook. [Raven: And when sourcing takeout becomes a chore, you can simply purchase a decade’s supply of meatballs from a local restaurant and never order out again!] [Wing: By the time you all are reading this, Raven will have mysteriously disappeared for mocking someone one too many times.]
Elizabeth drags Jessica out of the room so their mother can get some rest; Jessica is feeling very angry and hurt because Alice spent plenty of time talking to Elizabeth, but as soon as Jessica wanted to talk, her mother had no time. When Elizabeth tries to talk to her about how worried she is because Alice has been really tired lately, Jessica irritably snaps at her that her nonstop talking probably wore her out. That hurts Elizabeth’s feelings (kind of understandably!), but Jessica doesn’t care, because she hates to be ignored, especially by her own mother. Which is actually also understandable, even though it is also illogical. (She doesn’t actually know how long her mother was talking to Elizabeth, we already know from the previous book that Alice has not been feeling well for awhile, so Jessica really should cut her some slack, etc.; however, it is super realistic for a kid, especially a sheltered, privileged kid like Jessica, to not think about these things. To not even realize she should think about these things.)
Jessica goes to drown her sorrows in some juice (careful now, Jessica, Steven is the only one who gets away with eating and drinking all the time), and decides to make a special dessert for dinner so her mother will have to pay attention to her. She gets a recipe for chocolate parfait from the Unicorns’ celebrity cookbook, which is great continuity even though the actual existence of that cookbook is ridiculous. [Raven: “Jessica goes to drown her
sorrows siblings in some juice”… Fixed it for ya.]
At dinner that night, Ned says he’s going to New York City for business for two weeks. (Which, for those unfamiliar with USA geography, is across the country from Sweet Valley.) Steven wants to know what case he’s working on, because for some reason a teen boy cares about corporate law [Dove: Oh, so it’s corporate law he’s doing at the moment, is it? He did family law back in Three’s a Crowd.]; Ned is working for the My-T-Good Chocolate Company in Los Angeles, who thinks a company in New York stole their coconut candy bar recipe. He’s going to see if they can work things out. (A) That company name is both ridiculous and delightful, fuck. (B) I was just about to bore you with a bunch of intellectual property talk, but then I looked back at what I said about how unbelievable it is that Steven cares about such things, and decided to spare you all. [Raven: Boooooo! I like the “dull” stuff.] [Wing: I can bore you in person soon
right before I disappear you. Or, I suppose, we can have a rousing conversation on the next podcast episode.]
Elizabeth asks if he’ll get to sample a lot of candy bars while he’s there, which is a much more kid-friendly question; he’s going to save that job for Alice, though, who is coming along for the first week of the trip. [Raven: A friend of mine, working for Amex, had a business meeting at Nestle headquarters. The meeting was in a function room with walls lined by box after box of scrumptious chocolate treats. The meeting was four hours long. No one was offered as much as a single Smartie all day.] [Wing: That is a heartbreaking story. My dad (he of the “And Then My Dad Bit the Horse” story) was a long-haul truck driver who had certain candy companies on his list. They always gave us all the chocolate we could eat.] Their Great-Aunt Shirley is coming to Sweet Valley to look after the kids. (Why the first week? Wouldn’t it make more sense to do the second week, and then maybe take a couple days after for fun? Ah well, logic.) [Dove: Also, who the fuck is great-aunt Shirley? We have a great-aunt Helen later, and we have cousin Robin’s mother, but I have never heard of Shirley. Note to self: in about six years when we’ve recapped the books in question, come back and link those names!]
Alice hopes that she manages to shake her cold before she leaves or she won’t be a good traveling companion. She’s not wrong; it will also be miserable for her. Ned is worried about her, because the cold’s been dragging on for awhile now, and asks if she will see a doctor. She says she will if she doesn’t feel better soon. How soon is soon, Alice? Because it sounds like soon should have already happened, the way the book is making it sound.
Jessica is of course bored and impatient with all of this talk that is not about her, because she’s Jessica Fucking Wakefield.
She wants everyone to marvel at her dessert and tell her how wonderful she is and how delicious it tastes, and then she will ask for money for the unicorn sweater.
She waits until her father says he’s off to do paperwork for his trip to tell them she made a special dessert. Elizabeth is excited, Steven thinks it will taste like mud, and Ned has to take it with him to the study. Jessica waits expectantly for her mother to heap praise on her, but Alice is too full to eat another bite and wants to go sleep. (She’s very kind about all of this toward Jessica, though.) Jessica tries to bring up the sweater again, but Alice asks her to talk about it later and heads upstairs.
This, of course, does not go over well, and Jessica can’t stop obsessing over why Alice is ignoring her, feeling frustrated and unhappy, and like life isn’t fair. This is actually rather sad for her, and I’d be more sympathetic, but I read the summary for the book and that rage still burns within my blackened heart, so.
Later, Elizabeth asks to come in and talk to her, and at first Jessica sends her away, because she can’t help being angry at Elizabeth even though she knows there’s no reason to actually be upset with her. Elizabeth wants to talk about Alice, and wants to know if Jessica thinks she seems any different. Jessica snaps that Elizabeth is the one she talks to, not Jessica, and Elizabeth is taken aback by this and by Jessica’s complaints that Alice has all the time in the world for Elizabeth and none for Jessica. Elizabeth says that Alice hasn’t had much time for her, either; Elizabeth asked her to hem her new jeans, but she was too tired, and when Elizabeth just took her some tea, she dozed off while Elizabeth was still in the room.
Though Jessica tries to hold onto her grumpiness, she can’t help thinking that Elizabeth is right and Alice has seemed unusually tired lately, and never has time for them. Jessica points out that when they went to Secca Lake the weekend before, Alice was too tired to come with them. They talk a little about how Alice said she had a cold, but she’s not sneezing or coughing, she only seems tired all the time. (Pregnancy or cancer are the go to dramatic storylines in situations like this. Either would be a terrible choice.)
Though the girls want to keep talking, Ned tells them it’s time for them to go to bed. Elizabeth promises that they’ll talk more the next day, and then goes off to her own room, leaving Jessica with too many thoughts and emotions. Jessica’s worry is also pretty touching and emotional, except that, again, I read the damn summary and am still angry over it.
The next morning, Alice leaves early for work, and Jessica takes this as a sign that she must be feeling better. I’m taking it as a sign that she’s off to a specialist because she’s just that sick.
On the way to school, Jessica and Elizabeth nearly get run over by Dennis Cookman, a seventh grader who looks big enough to be in high school. They, understandably, think he’s a jerk. Well, he does nearly run them over with his bike. (Unfortunately, I have a fondness for people who are in middle school but look like they could be in high school, because that’s how Mr Wing, the Giant, was when we were younger.) [Dove: I think you’ll find your partner is now called “Ostrich”.] [Raven: Correct.] [Wing: Right, right. Mr Wing the Giant Ostrich.
I’m not going to have to disappear you; he’ll do it for me after this.]
Jessica splits off to talk to Lila Fowler and Ellen Riteman, who are eagerly talking about the school’s upcoming production of Carnival, which auditions in two weeks. Jessica only knows it’s a musical, but not what’s it about; I assume this is mostly for the reader. Lila explains that it is about an orphan girl named Lily who joins a traveling carnival and falls in love with a handsome magician who breaks her heart, and she ends up with a puppeteer who always loved her. That sounds like visually it could be great, but story-wise, it’s the same old same old. (I like musicals, but I’ve never seen this one.) [Dove: … what, wut? This is a real musical? I thought they’d made it up, which is why the lyrics were so feeble, “Hey, world, look at me! Me! Me! Me!” etc.] [Raven: *Donning pedant pants* I think you’ll find it’s Carnival! with an exclamation mark.] [Wing: I definitely misread that as Raven saying “Donning pedant pants,” as if that was a part of the terrible lyrics.]
Jessica, of course, imagines herself as the star, because she’s delightfully confident like that. (She’s also infuriatingly confident like that, but at the moment, it’s pretty great.)
At lunch, Kimberly Haver gives them some juicy gossip about how Dennis stole Jimmy Underwood’s bike. Jessica, of course, has to tell about seeing him that morning. Ellen thinks Dennis will be in big trouble, but Lila isn’t certain Jimmy will even tell, both because he’s shy and because Dennis is twice his size.
Jessica turns talk to the auditions. Janet Howell, president of the Unicorns, of course thinks that a Unicorn should audition for the lead. I’m surprised she’s not just flat saying that a Unicorn should automatically get the lead, unless she’s just assuming that if one of them tries out, that person will get it. Kimberly backs this up, because the girl who plays Lily should be someone very pretty and special, just like the Unicorns. I’m rolling my eyes so hard I’ve hurt myself.
Ellen says that Jessica is a good actress because she danced the lead in the ballet recital. As if those are the same things. (Yes, dancing involves a lot of physically acting, but that’s very different than everything required to be good in a musical.) Janet actually has the same argument I have, but Lila backs Jessica (which is being a pretty awesome friend, something we love to see), especially because Lily dreams that the puppets have come to life and dances with them, which is a lot like Swanilda in the ballet. I was pretty clear about my complaints with the ballet storyline in that book, so I won’t repeat them here (much).
Ellen breaks the news that Dana Larson is going to try out for the part of Lily, too. Dana is a tall, thin girl with short blond hair, a pointy chin, and a strong, clear soprano voice. Ellen complains she’s not as pretty as Jessica, which pleases Jessica. Being a part of the Unicorns makes her feel special and wanted, “and almost … better than girls like Dana Larson.” Oh lord, Jessica.
Ellen then turns to Caroline Pearce’s gossip column, which also breaks the news about Dana trying out for the part of Lily. SO WHAT WAS THE FUCKING POINT OF ELLEN SAYING SHE HEARD DANA SAYING IT IN CLASS? We don’t need two damn reveals in a row about the same thing. Caroline’s column also says that Bruce Patman is a shoo-in for the magician’s role.
The girls talk about how dreamy Bruce is and how Jessica might get to kiss him if she gets the role. I barely know anything about him, but I’ve heard enough about him in SVH that I already hate him.
After school, Jessica heads to ballet class. Wait, you mean she’s still taking classes?! We haven’t actually seen that in a long time. Madame Andre [Raven: Go fuck yourself, Madame André.] [Wing: I am pleased the blood feud continues.] tells her that Alice called and said she wasn’t feeling well, so Jessica is going to ride home with Kerry Glenn. UMM. Where is Elizabeth? Did we know she quit ballet? [Dove: Behold! Kerry Glenn. For when you need a person, but nobody special, and Cammi Adams isn’t available.]
Kerry and Jessica talk about Alice being sick, and Kerry says her mom went through the same thing right before she found out she was pregnant and Kerry ended up with a baby brother. Jessica’s now anxious that Alice is pregnant too. She grills Kerry on the details of her mom’s pregnancy and then about what it’s like to have a baby brother. Kerry hates it, and when her mom comes to pick them up, the baby is in the backseat screaming and Kerry has to try to keep him quiet. This does not make Jessica happy at all.
Jessica tells Steven and Elizabeth her new theory, and Elizabeth is shocked, of course. Alice overhears them talking about it, and is highly entertained at the thought. So that whole ballet class build up (with no damn ballet) was pointless. Awesome. This book is great.
Alicie then reassures them that she’s just run down and she should be back to normal in a few days.
Alice takes over making dinner, Jessica agrees to set the table even though it is Elizabeth’s turn, which seems weird because pretty much every other time they’ve done it together, and talks to her mom about the sweater again. She finally admits that it costs $40, which Alice says it’s a lot, especially for something she doesn’t actually need.
She then makes a deal with Jessica that if she saves her allowance until she has $20, her parents will match it. Jessica begs her not to do that because it will take her weeks to save that much money and by then the sweater will be gone.
This makes Jessica grumpy enough that she stomps out of the kitchen, telling her mother to have Elizabeth finish setting the table. Spoiled brat, aren’t you?
When Elizabeth and Jessica get to homeroom the next day, Mr Davis tells them that there will be no homeroom, because there’s a special assembly about the school musical. GEE, MR DAVIS, IS THAT SOMETHING GIRLS CAN DO?!
Elizabeth says she’s not going to try out, but she plans to write a behind-the-scenes series about it for the Sixers. Of course.
Mr Clark, the principal, tells them that Carnival will be the middle school’s first musical production. He then lets Ms McDonald, the school’s music teacher, take over. She tells them auditions start in a week (good lord, has it already been a week since we first heard about it?), and they will judge their acting and singing ability. They’ll also need help on scenery, costumes, publicity, etc.
Jessica tunes out the rest, because she’s worried about the singing part. Her voice isn’t bad, and she almost never sings off-key, but she’s not sure that she has the kind of voice that makes an audience sit up and take notice. She’s also not sure if she’s as good as Dana.
After the assembly, Caroline gives her more gossip about Jimmy, whose bike turned up on his front lawn, handlebars bent and with two flat tires. Caroline is also angling for gossip about Jessica trying out for the lead, and tells her that Dana has a fabulous voice. She also lets drop that she heard Bruce telling Charlie Cashman that he wants her to get the part.
Ned tells them at dinner that he’s leaving for New York the next morning before any of the kids are awake. Turns out, Alice isn’t going at all, so Aunt Sally won’t be coming to watch them. [Dove: Do you mean Shirley?] [Wing: Probably. And I’m too busy to go back to the text to see if I fucked it up or the book did. Probably me, since I was recapping while on holiday and v. v. drunk.] Alice says she’d rather go, but she’s still not feeling well, and she’s fallen behind at work and can’t afford to take the time off. Ned’s worried she’s also not feeling well enough to take care of three kids by herself, but she reassures him she is. Plus it’s not like you two do much parenting even when you’re both feeling your best, so I wouldn’t be too worried about it.
Jessica decides to sing “Look at Me” from Shout for her audition. (Apparently, she saw the musical in Los Angeles.) It’s pretty fitting for her, because the part we read about her singing is all, “look at me, me me!” ILU JESSICA.
Her voice is clear and true, but she thinks it sounds too thin and delicate for her to win the lead.
She gets home in time to take a call from Dr Costa’s office, for Alice of course. Alice isn’t home, and all the woman on the phone will say is that they have the results of her blood test. Then Alice calls down from upstairs, because SURPRISE, she’s actually home. Sick again.
Jessica eavesdrops on the call when Alice picks up; everything looks fine except for her elevated white blood cell count. Plus Dr Costa wants to schedule an appointment to have the lump on her neck biopsied, just in case.
Oh, good, I’m sure Sweet Valley Twins will handle a cancer or cancer scare story with respect and warmth and — fucking hell, I am not looking forward to this.
Jessica is freaked out, even though she doesn’t really know what it means. She starts to tell Jessica, but Alice comes in. Instead, Jessica asks about the blood test, because she answered the phone before she realized Alice was home. Alice tells them that she has a lump on the back of her neck that Dr Costa said was a swollen lymph node, and now that she knows her results aren’t completely normal, she’s sure she has a virus and when it’s gone the lump will disappear.
Steven suggests that Ned might want to come home early, but Alice doesn’t want to tell him because he doesn’t need to come home for something as minor as this.
Even so, Alice goes to nap again, leaving them to make dinner. Steven acts confident, but looks worried; all three of them are stressed. It’s actually kind of sweet at the moment. And then Jessica urges them to help with more than just their normal chores; Elizabeth backs her immediately, probably as shocked as I am that Jessica would offer something like that.
Jessica tells Elizabeth to do a load of laundry and iron her red cotton blouse, because Alice had promised to do that, but surely they can’t ask her to do it now. UMM. Elizibeth asks what’s on my mind, i.e., what is Jessica going to do while Elizabeth is on laundry and Steven is on dinner. (Steven complains that he doesn’t know anything about cooking. All he fucking has to do is put a casserole in the oven and make a salad. Come the fuck on, boy.) [Dove: And yet the twins routinely assist with dinner. Does Mr Davis arrange the chores in this house? (Except for those books when the plot demands that they can’t cook and don’t even know how to boil an egg.)]
Jessica will be checking on their mother. Sounds like the easiest task yet. Alice is sitting in bed, reading a magazine. She says she’s feeling a little achy, but fine. Jessica fluffs her pillows and straightens the sheets, and promises Alice that she won’t have to worry about anything while she’s feeling sick, because Jessica will take care of everything. Alice tells her she’s very thoughtful, and Jessica is filled with pleasure, even though she doesn’t plan to do all the work, but she’ll organize everything, and she thinks that’s the most important job of all. Because you organizing things has gone so well in the past.
She then sings her audition song for Alice, again starting with the “look at me, me, me” part. This is way too apropo. It’s probably going to get old, but so far I’m laughing.
Elizabeth handles the laundry and then goes to help Steven with the salad. Wait, so you started a load of laundry and then ironed a shirt, and he still hasn’t managed to make a fucking salad? Are you kidding me? [Raven: To be fair on Steven, I presume he’s never even SEEN a salad. He’s a pizza and sandwich guy. I can see him wandering about the garden, confused, trying to pluck dandelions from the lawn with cooking tongs.] [Wing: I present you with dandelion salad.] Steven’s grumpy that Jessica is upstairs singing while they’re doing all the work, which is totally valid. Elizabeth won’t let him go tell Alice, though, because they really can’t bother her while she’s sick.
Jessica comes down and finds them talking, and tells them they need to stop it and get dinner ready. Really, Jessica? That’s really how you’re going to play this? (Of course it’s how she’s going to play it. She’s already spun the story of how helpful she is, and that is now her truth.)
She’s also going to sit and make a list of all the chores that need to be done, so they can divide them up between them. Steven again tries to argue with her, but Elizabeth defuses the situation, because Elizabeth can’t stand up for herself or others whenever the author needs her to be a pushover. The rest of the time, she has a savior complex.
Jessica knows she’s being bossy, but it’s for a good reason. Someone has to run the house until Alice gets better, so why shouldn’t it be her?
Why shouldn’t it indeed, Jessica. Why shouldn’t it indeed. (I mean, surely you’re not the same girl who wanted to run for class president but then realized it was a lot of work, wanted to be president of your mock company but then realized it was a lot of work, and basically cons Elizabeth into doing your homework and chores about 95% of the time? I’m sure you’re down with managing a household.)
Saturday morning, Jessica gets up early and servers her mother breakfast in bed. What exactly did she serve, though? We’ve not seen her show any sort of skill in the kitchen? Plain bread and tepid water? [Dove: I think even Jessica is up to cereal and orange juice.] [Raven: If she DID drown her siblings in juice, would that make her… wait for it… a cereal killer?! *drops mic*] [Wing: NO. Only if she drowned them in cereal milk. Way to waste a
wonderful terrible pun.]
Then she wakes up Elizabeth and Steven (I’m still reeling in shock that Jessica was up before Elizabeth in the first place), and gives them their assignments for the day. She wants Elizabeth to vacuum the downstairs that morning, but Elizabeth planned to go horseback riding; she often rides Thunder, owned by her friend Ted Rogers. Ah, Ted, I wish you and Thunder were in these books more often. You’re pretty much a delight. Steven’s going to shoot baskets with Joe Howell (I assume Janet’s brother), but Jessica tells them both they’ll have to change their plans. Steven needs to wash the van and mow the lawn. Jessica herself plans to go to Dr Costa’s office with Alice, because someone from the family should be with her, and then she’ll make lunch for her when they get back. When Elizabeth reminds her that she’s supposed to go shopping with the Unicorns at the mall, not only has Jessica forgotten about it, but she simply says she’s not going, and calls Lila immediately to back out of the trip.
I … I am actually kind of impressed, Jessica.
Of course, she then tries to convince Lila to avoid the Clothes Horse where that violet unicorn sweater awaits. She knows if Lila sees it, she’ll buy it, and Jessica can’t have that!
Jessica gets super edgy in the waiting room, and she can’t help imagining the worst the longer Alice takes. This is brief, but emotional, and it comes across as incredibly realistic. I feel for Jessica, even though she is really leaping to conclusions without having any information.
She’s just about to go find Alice when she walks into the room. Dr Costa gave her a thorough exam and took more blood for testing, and that’s it. Jessica is visibly upset at this point, and Alice ends up reassuring her rather than Jessica being support for her mother. (I’m cutting her some slack here; she is young and not used to actually providing support to people.)
Alice is supposed to stay in bed for the next few days and get a lot of rest (what the fuck is wrong with her?!), but she wants to stop by the Dairi Burger and have a little fun before she’s stuck in the house for awhile. Jessica is uneasy and worried about the test results, but forces herself to relax.
She does briefly think of Elizabeth and Steven working so hard at home while she gets to go out for an ice cream soda, and feels guilty, but ignores it almost immediately. She suggests that they bring ice cream home to them, though, and Alice calls her very thoughtful. It is surprisingly thoughtful for Jessica, actually!
Over the next few days, Alice stays in bed as ordered, but keeps feeling worse, weak and achy, with a sore throat and a slight fever.
Monday afternoon, Jessica decides they’re having pork chops, mashed potatoes, and peas for dinner, and Steven is in charge of the pork chops. Steven says he’s putting her in charge of being a royal pain in the neck. Jessica shuts that down by pointing out that while they joke around (or maybe “joke” around, it’s getting kind of bitingly real in there), Alice is upstairs barely able to get out of bed.
On the one hand, this is fairly compelling writing for this series. On the other hand, I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around Jessica, who tries to get out of every chore ever and is queen of disorganization, actually taking charge and getting things done and being this organized. [Raven: For me, Jessica has ALWAYS “got things done.” She’s just not particularly good at “doing things.” Jessica’s willingness to organise a rota rather than pick up a broom is a clear sign of work avoidance, particularly because she’s entirely self-appointed in this role.] [Wing: She’s great at appointing other people to do things, not usually so great at making sure they do them. Though I suppose there’s much less time spent making sure Elizabeth and Steven actually do the tasks they’re given than there would be trying to organise the Unicorns to sell their clothes.]
Alice insists on eating with them every night, even though she is weak and exhausted. She thanks them for all the wonderful work they’ve done around the house, and especially thanks Jessica for taking good care of her and being by her side the entire time. Elizabeth and Steven exchange a disgusted look over this, but the thing is, from what we’ve seen, she’s not wrong. Jessica really has been taking good care of her. She probably should have split up the chores more evenly, but it’s not like she’s doing nothing, and she’s doing far more than I would have given her credit for.
The big news is that Dr Costa called with her test results which were inconclusive, so not actually that big of news. There’s the possibility that she might have the Epstein-Barr virus, which is says is not terribly serious and just requires rest before it goes away on its own. Jessica isn’t so easily reassured as her siblings, and wants to know about the other possibilities. Fair point to Jessica, there, and I’m surprised Elizabeth isn’t running scenarios in her head. [Dove: Well, this is the part where my eleven year old self bailed out of the book. That’s fucking glandular fever. I refused to take this seriously after that.] [Wing: In the US, I think this is known as mono, and it is not typically considered an adult disease. It’s usually assumed to be a teen disease (it’s even called the “kissing disease” because of how it’s assumed to pass through high schools), so I can absolutely understand how Jessica didn’t get there when it comes to her mother. Since they didn’t actually have answers from the doctor, I thought this was a believable, painful response.]
Jessica keeps pushing, and finally Alice decides that they are grown up enough to understand, and she’d rather be honest than lie and let their imaginations run away with them. (For Jessica, at least, it is far too late for that.) Sure enough, the lump on her neck might be serious, and there’s a tiny chance it could be cancerous.
Jessica, understandably, freaks the fuck out.
She desperately wants to call Ned (she even calls him “daddy” here, showing just how scared she is, and how young she feels), but Alice says it’s too late to call because New York is three hours ahead of California.
UMMM. With a potential cancer scare, there is no such thing as “too late to call.” Fuck, Alice.
That night, Jessica can’t let it go, and has anxious thoughts for hours. She’s certain that she’s right, and Alice is dying; soon Jessica will be all alone. She cries herself to exhaustion and finally to a restless sleep.
Here’s the thing. This is typical overly dramatic Jessica, making things all about her and blowing things out of proportion (she won’t be anywhere near alone, for example). HOWEVER. Cancer in someone you care about is terrifying and heartbreaking, and she’s showing really classic signs of anxiety. I feel so much for her, y’all. So many Jessica feelings right now.
(I don’t even know what to do with myself.)
[Dove: I’m the other way on this. In her mind, she’s a “poor motherless child” and all alone in the world. Except for y’know, her brother, sister and father. As someone who actually did lose a parent, when I was younger than her, and was left with an abusive parent and absolutely no backup, Jessica can get fucked.]
[Wing: Well, I did point out that she won’t be anywhere near alone, and this is typical overly dramatic Jessica. But I do think it is realistic for an extremely privileged, sheltered preteen to react like this to a cancer scare in a parent, when cancer is so rarely discussed here and has such an IMMEDIATE DEATH sort of pop culture presence. Yes, she overreacts to it, and in selfish ways, but that is exactly how Jessica reacts to everything, and many people seem to love that when it happens other times. So within the story itself, I think it works. Your reaction, particularly as young!Dove, is understandable, though.]
The next morning, Elizabeth wants to serve Alice breakfast in bed, but Jessica wants to talk about her absolute belief that Alice is dying. Elizabeth tries to calm her down, but Jessica is having nothing of it, and continues to show signs that she’s deep in an anxiety spiral.
In cooking class, Lila and Jessica are supposed to be working together to learn to make mashed potatoes. (It’s potatoes. In water. Mashed. Butter and milk and spices. NOT THAT FUCKING HARD, SWEET VALLEY MIDDLE SCHOOL.) Lila wants to talk about the Carnival auditions, but Jessica is distracted and worried about her mother. Lila goes on to talk about all the clothes she found at the mall, but Jessica is too worried about Alice to pay attention, and is having some compulsive, terrifying thoughts. I am having some deep empathy for Jessica. Poor kid. I just want to give her a hug and let her talk about all her fears.
She’s so worried about her mother that she turns the mixer on before she thrusts it into the mashed potatoes, despite very clear instructions from Mrs Gerhart. When the teachers yells at her, Jessica feels embarrassed, humiliated, angry, and confused all at the same time. Oh, kid. I feel for you.
I can also see exactly where this is going, because Jessica Wakefield.
She checks on Alice immediately after school, and finds her looking tired and weak, with sunken cheeks and pale skin. Alice says they’ll have the biopsy results by Friday, and Jessica hugs her and talks about how much she loves her. Alice is gentle with her daughter, and reassures her that there’s no reason to be afraid, she’s not going to die.
Even though she is desperate to believe Alice, she’s not really convinced.
Alice asks about whether she’s saving money for her sweater still, and Jessica isn’t enthusiastic about it at all anymore, because she’s learned how much more important other things are. Alice says there’s a lot going on and Jessica has been a big help, so maybe it is too much to expect her to think about saving money. She promises that when she’s feeling better, they’ll go to the mall together and buy it. Jessica acts like this is fine, but she’s mostly worried that Alice will never be well enough to go shopping again.
God, kid, you are killing me. I am having all sorts of feelings about this book, and Jessica, and her relationship with Alice, and not a damn one of them is hatred. Fuck.
Alice plans to call Ned that afternoon once Elizabeth and Steven get home, and Jessica is sure he’ll want to fly back immediately, but Alice doesn’t think that is necessary. She also asks Jessica not to say anything that might upset him, because he’s working on an important case. I understand why she says that, but Jessica is obviously frantic and desperate to see another adult in the house. Cut the kid some slack, asking her to basically lie to her father. Also, it is really shitty to be far away and kept in the dark about what sort of health issues are going on back home.
… I am overidentifying with this way too fucking much.
Alice is very calm when they call Ned, but Jessica freaks out at the idea that something might happen to her before Ned gets back. Elizabeth and Steven each talk to him about cheerful things that are going on at school, but Jessica struggles because she’s been instructed not to say anything to worry him, but all she can think about is her fear.
After dinner, Jessica goes down to the basement to practice her ballet, but struggles to concentrate on her warm-up routines. Instead she puts on Swan Lake and listens to the melancholy music which really suits her mood.
Later, Caroline calls to talk to Elizabeth about their meeting the next day; Jessica is distracted because she hears her mother coughing, and is absolutely certain that is a sign Alice is getting worse. Jessica tells Caroline that none of them can talk because their mother is sick. Finally all those feelings Jessica has been bottling up come bursting out as she talks to Caroline; she says that she’s upset, Alice is very sick, no one knows what’s wrong with her, and it’s frightening.
I can’t even be mad about her for this. All of those things are true, or at least appear true from her perspective, and she’s been holding her emotions in check for so long, it absolutely makes sense she would let them spill out to someone eventually. It’s just kind of shit luck that the someone is Caroline, aka Gossip Queen.
We jump to Elizabeth’s point of view, and I am disappointed, because I’ve actually been enjoying the tight focus on Jessica. Not only am I feeling very empathetic toward her, but I think this POV switch messes up the flow of the story.
Anyway, Elizabeth is waiting for her meeting with Caroline, but Caroline never showed. (They’re supposed to talk about her gossip column, because she wrote that “Ms Luster is marrying an Italian count and moving to Rome!” She won’t publish it unless Caroline can prove it’s true (and throws about some casual ableism in the process, so fuck you, Elizabeth).
Amy says that Caroline called and told her about Alice, and she didn’t expect to see Elizabeth at school. Elizabeth is confused about why Amy is so sympathetic. Amy tells her that the gossip is that her mother is basically dying; Elizabeth immediately worries that Jessica knows something she doesn’t.
Olivia Davidson and Sophia Rizzo stop her as she goes searching for Elizabeth and offer their sympathies. (Hi Sophia!) Jennifer Norris joins in. Apparently, Caroline has been calling everyone, and the stories range from leukemia to pneumonia to a bad virus. (Well, that one comes from Elizabeth herself.) No one believes Elizabeth’s claims that it is not as serious as they think.
Elizabeth runs into Caroline, who asks her if it’s true her mother is really going to die. This freaks Elizabeth out both because she doesn’t want to believe it is true, and because she doesn’t think Caroline has the right to tell the entire school. She’s not wrong, either! But this is not the first time someone has told the entire school someone’s secret (hello adoption storyline), and I’m sure it won’t be the last. [Raven: Mr Nydick’s secret was revealed in one the first page of the first book, and the police STILL haven’t been notified.] [Wing: But they’re right there on top of that terrifying VCR theft.]
Elizabeth snaps at Caroline to stop telling people she’s dying, and Caroline gets huffy because Elizabeth is yelling at her when she’s just trying to get her sympathy from her friends. This is a mess, but in a really understandable, realistic way.
Elizabeth has too much on her mind to talk to Caroline about her gossip column, so she waves off actually having their meeting and continues looking for Jessica.
She finally finds her, and Jessica claims she never said that Alice is dying. (Elizabeth wants to know if she knows something Elizabeth doesn’t, which, with as much time as Jessica has spent with Alice lately, is a valid worry, even though it says something shitty about how much she trusts her mother to be honest.) Elizabeth is mad that Jessica told Caroline anything at all, because everyone knows how she likes to stretch the truth, but at the same time, now everyone believes Alice is dying.
Jessica is shocked and embarrassed that everyone knows — but also a little bit pleased, because now she can share her grief with her friends. And, fuck, this too is totally valid, even if she’s going about it in a convoluted and completely Jessica Wakefield kind of way. Damn it.
Ellen comes up to talk to Jessica, and Elizabeth expects her to set the story straight, but Jessica just says she didn’t say anything before because she didn’t want to bother them with her problems. Elizabeth is aghast that Jessica would do something like this, but damn it, Elizabeth, this is one of the least terrible things Jessica has ever done.
Jessica is also truly convinced that Alice is going to die, and tells Elizabeth that again. Elizabeth, of course, forgives her, because she’s really scared and because Elizabeth always forgives her. This time, though, it is both warranted and sweet.
The Unicorns swarm Jessica at lunch offering to do whatever they can to help her. (Hi, Mary Wallace!) Jessica feels good that someone is trying to take care of her rather than her having to take care of someone else, and also she loves being the center of attention even when the reason is an unhappy one. Oh, there you are, Jessica. True to yourself as always. (Fuck. I kind of adore you right now.)
After awhile, talk turns to boys and Carnival: Winston Egbert (a tall, quiet boy whose ears turn red when he’s embarrassed) is going to try out for Carnival. Jessica tries to join into their gossip and joy, but she’s too distracted by her worry.
She’s not even sure if she’ll try out anymore, because she doesn’t want to spend that much time away from her mother, and she’s sure she won’t be able to concentrate on singing and dancing, and will probably burst into tears right on stage.
UGH I HAVE SO MANY EMOTIONS ABOUT THIS AND NONE OF THEM ARE HATE.
The Unicorns try to talk her into trying out, though, because they don’t want Dana to get the part, but also because they think she can’t expect herself to spend every waking moment taking care of her mother and moping around the house won’t help her. Both of which are true and decent advice. What is happening right now?!
The family eats dinner in Alice’s bedroom that night, and Elizabeth calls it a fun semi-picnic. (Without the bugs, Steven adds.) Alice says that she talked to Ned, and he’ll be coming home soon, but he has more work to do, so she told him to stay. I am feeling all sorts of emotions about Alice’s stoicism and what a tough position Ned is in right now. Damn it, ghost writer, stop giving me positive feelings about the Wakefields.
The siblings have a fight after dinner, and Steven actually takes it to Alice, demanding that she tell Jessica to stop acting like a dictator. Alice is very nearly asleep already, even though they’ve just barely left the room, and she sounds weak and sick when she asks Steven what’s wrong. Elizabeth drags him out of the room, saying they were just fooling around, and apparently she looks bad enough that Steven is worried and gives in.
Jessica can’t stop thinking about Carnival tryouts while she tries to do her homework, and eventually goes to check on Alice. When she finds her mother awake, she goes in to talk to her; Alice looks small and frail in the big double bed, and it makes Jessica’s heart ache. It makes my heart ache too. Fuck.
(It also made me laugh at “big double bed,” because double beds are not big at all.)
Alice talks to her about Carnival, which is one of her favorite musicals; she tells her the story of the first time she saw it and how she spent all her money buying the soundtrack right after, then danced around her house singing the songs over and over again. Oh fuck, that is super fucking charming. Goddamnit, ghost writer.
Alice convinces her to audition. When Jessica goes to start practicing, she feels guilty that Elizabeth and Steven are still watching dishes, but convinces herself that she can’t let her mother down and practicing for her auditions is more important.
She spends hours practicing, and then decides that a hot, gooey pizza would be the thing to cheer her up. A small pizza costs $3.50 (OH GOD, I WISH), but all she has is $3. Then she realizes she can take some money from the cookie jar that has the emergency money. It has exactly $5 in it. That isn’t much of an emergency money stash! Instead of just a cheap cheese pizza, she uses the extra money to add pepperoni and extra cheese.
(Also, Jessica ordering herself a pizza after dinner is just fine. If Lois was involved, there’d be fifty pages of fat shaming.)
When Jessica tells the Unicorns that she’s decided to audition after all, they talk about how brave she is and how much she’s gone through. Jessica reacts modestly on the outside, but on the inside, she’s certain they’re right, because her life has been just awful since Alice became sick, and after all, winning the lead would mean so much to Alice. Oh, lord, here we go.
Friday morning, Elizabeth wakes up early and goes out to her “thinking seat” in the tree in the backyard. She’s worried about Alice, of course, and trying to convince herself that Jessica just gets carried away and can’t be right. She cries a little because she doesn’t want Alice to die, and she’s really scared too. God, now I am having emotions toward Elizabeth and none of them are hate either. What is happening right now?
Elizabeth is sympathetic toward Jessica for awhile that morning, until Jessica talks about how hard it has been to keep the house running smoothly plus take care of Alice. Oh boy. That was not the right thing to say. Steven snaps at her, and Elizabeth is shocked that Jessica would make a claim like that, because Elizabeth and Steven have done all the cooking, cleaning, washing, and ironing. How can you not believe that Jessica will have rewritten the story in her own favor? She does this every damn day.
Elizabeth doesn’t say anything, though, because it would just start a fight and she doesn’t want to do that while Alice is sick. Or you’re just a fucking pushover, because you react like this pretty much every time whether Alice is sick or not.
Mrs Wyler gives them a pop quiz in math, but Jessica is far too distracted thinking about Alice’s test results. She starts crying in class, and Wyler excuses both Jessica and Elizabeth to the girls’ room for the rest of the period. (Why not the damn nurse?) Elizabeth wants to stay and take the quiz, though, because of course she does.
(Have we put together a schedule of classes and which students are in which classes together? I have the feeling that is going to come in useful for snark purposes. Even though there’s very little snark in this damn book.) [Dove: Good plan. Also, I had a draft of what books happen during which months, but it fell apart. We should get this going.] [Wing: Oh, good, more organization.]
At lunch, the twins call home to see if there has been any news from the doctor, but nope. Alice tells them to call back after school, because she’s sure to have an update by then. She also promises that they will handle whatever happens together as a family.
Fuck, there are all those feelings again. I can’t even bring myself to get annoyed at Jessica’s casual ableism.
After school, they get the good news that Alice doesn’t have cancer, it is just a bad virus, and though it will take a few weeks of rest, she will be fine. Elizabeth and Jessica laugh and cry in the hallway together, their relief spilling over, and everything is golden and glorious and sweet for one shining moment.
[Dove: Because. it’s. fucking. glandular. fever. which. is. non. fatal.]
[Wing: It was at least serious enough in kids in the 80s and 90s to warrant it being a Big Deal when baby!Wing’s baby brother got it in a very bad way. It was truly terrifying at times, and I was older than Jessica. Plus until this moment, she’s certain it is cancer. When doctors can’t tell you anything concrete, and the word cancer is thrown around, even adults get terrified, much less preteens.]
And then… auditions.
Dana comes up to Jessica and tells her that she’s decided not to audition, because she wants Jessica to have the part of Lily, since Jessica needs it more than she does. Jessica is so shocked she can’t think of anything to say, which is pretty rare for her. When Dana says that this might be the last chance Alice has to see her act, Jessica realizes that everyone still thinks her mother is dying.
Ms McDonald comes up and tells Jessica that not only is Dana not auditioning, but all the girls who were going to try out for Lily have agreed to give it to Jessica instead. Oh, dear, this is quite the conundrum, isn’t it?
Jessica knows why everyone is being so nice to her, she doesn’t even have to try out at the moment, but if she tells the truth (which she knows she should do), auditions will go on as normal and she probably won’t get the part, because Dana is so good.
Jessica thanks them and takes the role. Of course she does. She is 100% true to Jessica, and I can’t even hate her for it. Hell, I pretty much adore her for it at this point.
Jessica easily talks herself around to giving herself a chance to be a star and it’s not like she’s lying exactly, she’ll just keep her mouth shut for a few days, and then on Monday she will tell everyone the truth, but then it will be too late for Ms McDonald to give the part to Dana.
But … how? How will it be too late? You won’t even have started rehearsals, will you?
That night, Jessica finds Ned home. She’s thrilled to see him. I’m touched by this little family scene. Damn it. They’re all proud Jessica got the lead (though, of course, she doesn’t tell them how), and Ned brought them hundreds of candy bars. Steven is thrilled, I’m sure you’re shocked to hear, and gobbles one down in just a few bites. Again, this is fine for Steven because he’s thin. Lois would be mocked to hell and back for this.
Jessica tries to order Steven and Elizabeth to start on dinner, which she’s decided will be meat loaf, but Ned says he’s going to do the cooking because they’ve done more than their share of work lately. Alice also wants to celebrate because they have so much to be thankful for, so they’re going to have cake and ice cream for dessert. Elizabeth and Steven jump at the chance to go shopping with Ned, but Jessica wants to stay home with Alice, because she’s so relieved and filled with so much love. And even though she’s also being her selfish, ridiculous self, it’s incredibly touching at the same time.
Damn it, Jessica. Don’t make me love you.
That night Jessica can’t sleep as she thinks about her day, but also can’t figure out why she doesn’t yet feel happy. She wonders if it’s because she lied about her mother’s illness to get the part, but immediately tells herself that there wasn’t anything wrong with what she’d done, it was just a little white lie, and up until the end of the school day, she’d really thought Alice was dying.
Even though she can normally spin her stories until she believes them herself, her guilt and uneasiness lingers even into her sleep.
Ned makes breakfast the next day, too, and the family eats together, warm and happy and relieved. Even though it is a Wakefield family scene, it is fairly sweet. They talk about what’s going on in school; Elizabeth tells them about Caroline’s Italian count story, and says that she’s finally checked with Ms Luster, and while she is going to Rome, she is not moving there, she’s just visiting her brother, who is a clerk, not a count. Oh, Caroline, that is such a big switch. [Raven: Caroline could definitely get a press relations role in the current administration.] [Wing: Caroline: Queen of Alternative Facts before it was
Jessica laughs that Caroline never gets anything right, and Elizabeth pointedly says that’s why she never tells Caroline anything personal about herself or her family. I want to roll my eyes at Saint Elizabeth Doing No Wrong, but she also has a damn point.
Jessica doesn’t want to talk about that, of course, so turns the talk to the unicorn sweater. Yeah, of course she remembers it now. Alice says she will still buy it, and in fact, she wants to buy each of them something special in a few weeks when she feels well enough to take them to the mall, because they’ve worked so hard to take care of her.
Jessica still doesn’t feel happy, though, because she keeps worrying about what happened at the auditions, and what will happen if someone finds out that she lied to get the part. Not only would she be in terrible trouble, but the whole school would laugh at her, too.
Ned suggests they go for a swim, but Jessica doesn’t want to go outside, in case someone from school comes by and sees her laughing and splashing in the pool, which is no way for someone with a dying mother to behave.
UMMM. JESSICA. If they see your father and siblings doing that, even if you’re not, I think your secret will be out.
She doesn’t even manage a good lie to her father; she tells him that she has homework to do. Because anyone ever will believe you’ll skip swimming in order to do homework. You need some twin magic up in here, and apparently it won’t work on your family.
Amazingly, about ten minutes later, Brooke, Sandra, and Dana show up at the house. They’ve come by to see how she’s doing, and Jessica is both stunned and horrified, because she can hear her family in the background, splashing in the pool.
She tells them she’s doing okay, and they say she should have stuck around during auditions; all three of them are in the show. Dana is playing the leader of the acrobats (though we don’t hear what the other two are doing), and Bruce is the magician. Jessica should be thrilled about this, and she knows it, but she’s too nervous to enjoy her triumph. She has no idea how to keep them away from her family until Monday. Maybe leave the house with them? SOMETHING.
instead she takes them into the den so they can be quiet since Alice is sleeping; she does this because she hears Steven coming inside to get some lemonade. If you can hear him, don’t you think the girls can too? But this logic doesn’t work in Sweet Valley.
All is momentarily well, but just as Dana is telling her how bad they feel about Alice, there’s a burst of laughter from the kitchen that they all hear. Jessica tries to cover it by saying her mother is still very weak, and the girls sort of buy it, but there’s an unhappy silence after. Then they invite her to go see a new movie playing at the mall, their treat, to cheer her up.
Yes, I’m sure she needs a ton of cheering up what with her family laughing so hard in the kitchen.
Jessica thinks this is the perfect way to keep them from seeing their family, but before they can leave, there’s more laughter from the kitchen. She wants to tell them the truth, but is scared of losing her role in the play. The more she thinks of it, the more she realizes the last few weeks had been the most miserable of her entire life, and she doesn’t want pretend any longer.
She knows there’s only one way out of her predicament, and that is to tell the truth, even if it is hard, and she also has to give up her part in Carnival, because it is only fair.
Jessica starts to tell them, but then Elizabeth bursts into the room to tell Jessica about the prank Steven played on Ned (fake fly ice cube into his lemonade), and the girls are seriously freaked out by Elizabeth’s joy and laughter.
Everyone then turns to Jessica, because no one else knows what’s going on. And that’s terrifying.
Jessica thinks quickly, and tells Dana that now that her mother is going to be all right, she wants Dana to audition for the lead in the musical. She goes on to say that she’s been trying to tell them since they walked in, they’ve just learned it’s only a bad virus and she’ll be better in a few weeks. She doesn’t tell them she found out before auditions, which is such a Jessica thing to do, I can’t even hate.
Jessica comes out looking like a selfless wonder, and Dana even offers to not audition because she did drop out. Jessica is really tempted to take her at her word, but her conscience is getting to her still, and she thinks Dana deserves to be Lily.
They want her to go to the movies with them still, but she’s feeling more like crying than laughing, so she sends them on their way because she wants to be with her family. Which also makes sense.
Elizabeth does call her on her sneakiness after the girls leave, but of course she forgives Jessica pretty much immediately. Though she is still a little angry, because she didn’t use Alice’s illness as an excuse for everything.
UMM. Except for the part where she knew the actual diagnosis before auditions, she really didn’t. Yes, she liked the attention, but she was legitimately scared Alice was going to die the rest of the time, and getting support from her friends is legitimate.
Elizabeth does decide to punish here, though, and says she’s going to hand out the work assignments; Jessica has to do all her regular chores plus the jobs Steven and Elizabeth did, the cooking, the cleaning, the washing, everything.
AMAZINGLY, Jessica actually spends the weekend doing all the chores. She doesn’t weasel her way out of it, she doesn’t complain (much), she just does it. I am shocked.
By Sunday night, though, Jessica is feeling sorry for herself, between the chores and giving up the lead in the school musical. Ned tells her she’s turning into a great cook, and then that they need to run to the store really quickly. He goes to get cash out of the cookie jar, and Jessica realizes that she never put the money back.
She thinks about lying, but decides that she’s already gotten into trouble from lying, and so she’ll tell the truth — mostly. She says she took the money because she was going to get pretty flowers for Alice. Because of course she does. Oh, Jessica. You’ll never really change.
He is going to make her replace the money from her next allowance, though, which makes her sad. Until she remembers that her mother is actually going to be okay, and nothing really matters beyond that.
Ms McDonald calls Jessica at home to talk about the musical. Jennifer Norris just learned her family is moving to Seattle (because there’s a shit ton of last minute moves as people flee Sweet Valley before they are sucked into the neverending vortex of the Wakefields), and so there’s a part opening up for the Carnival performers. It requires dancing and a solo song, and Jessica is thrilled.
Everything is coming up Jessica, as always.
Two weeks later, Jessica wears her new unicorn sweater to school. The Unicorns, of course, are thrilled and beg to borrow it. As they’re talking, Dennis chases Winston past her. They talk briefly about what a creep Dennis is, and then go back to cooing over the sweater.
We skip to Winston’s POV. Though his long legs make him a good runner, Dennis gains on him. Then as if he’s an ingenue in a horror movie, he trips and Dennis is on top of him, straddling Winston with his legs. (Kinky.) He wants to “borrow” Winston’s lunch money, but Winston knows better. Dennis tells him to hand over the money or he’ll get rough with him (kinkier), and then threatens him into silence.
Winston doesn’t know what he’ll do for lunch, but he does know that whatever he does will be worth it to keep Dennis happy. Will Dennis get away with bullying the entire sixth grade class? Find out in The Bully, coming next week. Yay for having foreshadowinig threaded throughout this book.
Fuck, I actually liked most of this. Maybe all of it. And I really enjoyed the hell out of Jessica at her worst and her best.
I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO I AM ANYMORE.
(Seriously, though, I have a soft spot for stories about mothers going through an illness and how frightening that is for the kids, no matter their age. This hit me right in the feelings. Good job, ghost writer.)
[Dove: I think this book hits me in exactly the wrong way. Oh, your parent survived? Awesome. And the rest of your family loves you and supports you, so even if you parent had died, you’d have been ok. Gosh, isn’t it awesome being you? And yes, this is eleven-year-old Dove commenting.]
[Raven: I went back and forth on this one. I did think Jessica’s concern was real, but her “taking charge” of the household was ENTIRELY self-serving. And the whole X Factor Sob Story getting her the lead in Carnival! left me a little cold, especially the half-hearted confession to Dana when the truth was verging on emerging. I have a feeling this book was meant to be one thing (Jessica totally manipulating an innocuous situation to be, well, centre of attention) but it became something else (a kid’s real concern over a parent’s illness), and I don’t think it really worked as either.]
[Wing: I think the emotions ring really true within the context of the world (there are many things to be said about, for example, doctors throwing around the word cancer when they are this far removed from having actual results), and I thought Jessica’s fear for Alice was real and touching and heartbreaking. I’m less convinced by Jessica taking charge; she is the type to try to take charge, but she was far too successful at it for me to believe it. And the Carnival part left me cold. It’s boring, it wraps up far too neatly, and it’s actually mostly pointless. There was a much better way for Jessica to learn not to pretend her mother is still sick.
I’m more empathetic toward Jessica than I expected, because watching a parent go through an illness that has no solidi diagnosis but could be deadly is terrifying even as an adult, I learned the hard way. Whether or not I think that particular situation should have been presented the way it was (doctor’s responses, it actually being something like mono, etc.), within the context of the story, what the Wakefield kids are dealing with is terrifying, especially Jessica, because we’re seeing most of this through her eyes. And losing a parent, even if you have another parent and other family, and even if you’re an adult, can be heartbreaking.
I can absolutely see why baby!Dove responded the way she did, though, especially with all the terrible things she was dealing with. Dove is amazing and strong, but Dove went through some real hell, too.]