Title: Second Best [Wing: Why does the boy on the left — Tom? — look like a male Wakefield twin? What is going on with the genetics in Sweet Valley?] [Raven: Really? You wanna pull at THAT thread?] [Dove: Or it’s all very simple, and Alice has mothered more than three children.]
Summary: Things are happening fast for the Wakefield twins. The biggest party of the year is coming up. If Jessica can get “un-grounded” in time, she’ll be able to go. Elizabeth is entering a state-wide essay contest, hoping to win the $100 prize. And both twins are putting in extra time on their special school projects.
Cute, smart and popular Tom McKay is in Jessica’s work group. His anti-social brother, Dylan, is in Elizabeth’s. Dylan feels that he will never be as good as his brother. So why should he even bother to try? Elizabeth really wants to prove to Dylan that he can be the best at something, too. But can she help him without coming between the two brothers?
Tagline: Is the boys’ problem too tough for even Elizabeth to handle… [Wing: EVEN ELIZABETH WTF]
Oh, god. I’m not ready. What if I like another book? What am I going to do?!
[Dove: Not a fan of this book – the story itself is good, but like Tug of War, there’s a lot of Elizabeth smugness in it.]
We open with Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield rushing into their kitchen to tell their mother, Alice, something. We get the requisite seeing double/being different from Alice’s point of view, but it’s basically just that, a description of how alike they look except for their hair styles and a statement that they are very different.
Elizabeth wants to tell Alice about a statewide essay contest, because Elizabeth is a one-note lover of school, and Jessica wants to talk about Kimberly Haver’s birthday party, because all she wants to do is party. Who cares if I, the reader, have no fucking idea who Kimberly Haver is — or that, per the last book (and the summary for this one), Jessica is still grounded.
There’s a bunch of Elizabeth and Jessica talking at the same time, which is both kind of adorable, terribly cheesy, and overused, so I will sum up: essay = freedom of speech, winner gets a gold medal and $100; party = biggest party of the year, everyone at school is going, Kimberly will be really disappointed if Jessica doesn’t go.
Alice lets them go on like this for a bit, and then tells them to try again one at a time. This made me smile. Please tell me I’m not still riding that (small) wave of enthusiasm from last month. I don’t think I can handle like Sweet Valley two months in a row.
Luckily for me, their brother Steven breaks in to talk about his sports banquet and obnoxiously stick his finger straight into the bowl of fudge icing Alice just made. GROSS, STEVEN. That is for everyone. Back off. (Also, again, he can do that and it’s supposed to be fun and cute because he’s an athletic boy; Lois Waller walks too close to the vending machines and her ponderous weight is causing earthquakes all over southern California.
(Yeah, I’m stretching for things to hate, since Lois hasn’t even been mentioned yet. I just can’t handle another month of enjoying the books. I’m sure someone will say or do something I don’t like soon enough, so I should just be patient.)
Apparently, all Steven’s been talking about lately is
how much he wants Jessica’s fudge basketball, especially since the JV team won the league championship with him as one of the star players. Because god forbid a Wakefield not be good at something.
Alice says they’ll talk about everything over dinner and tells the girls to set the table (why not Steven, ALICE; he’s perfectly capable of setting the table, and as eager as he is for food, he should do anything to make dinner come faster), so the girls … run upstairs. That’s absolutely how setting the table goes in my house. [Dove: That’s actually a really good point — I don’t think Steven’s ever done any of the chores that the girls do. I know he does in later books, because they’re plot-relevant (parents are busy, for reasons, and we can see this because all three kids are doing chores), but not in regular books.] [Raven: He does his own laundry in the FUCKING Ithig book, which, at the very least, is suspicious.] [Wing: Pretty sure we covered the real reason he was doing his laundry back then. Also, I thought that book didn’t exist.]
Elizabeth, at least, is only doing so long enough to drop off her books and wash her hands and face, but Jessica dramatically throws herself to the floor in her room, freaking out about how she’ll just die if their parents don’t let her go to Kimberly’s party. After all, she’s already been grounded for over ONE WHOLE WEEK.
The world has truly ended, Jessica. Truly.
Their dad makes it home for dinner, which they don’t expect (lawyers, man), and that makes Jessica even more nervous. Elizabeth is nervous too, on her twin’s behalf. I want to snark at this as Elizabeth always sacrificing herself for what Jessica wants, but it’s actually kind of adorable and true to being sisters and best friends.
Oh, god, last month really did break my snark. What am I going to do?
Steven talks about his sports banquet, but it’s so boring Pascal (or the ghost writer) doesn’t even want to share any details. Elizabeth explains that Mr Bowman (Elizabeth’s favorite teacher, newspaper adviser, and terrible dresser) is going to give extra credit for writing the essays, too. She’s damn excited about it, for someone who probably doesn’t need any extra credit. (Jessica, now, should probably be paying attention.)
When Ned says that it all sounds very exciting, Jessica can’t hold herself back any longer, and says that it can’t be as exciting as Kimberly’s party, because she’s inviting the entire seventh grade, plus a few extra mature sixth graders. So she’ll be inviting Elizabeth then, right? Because every book we’re told how much more mature Elizabeth is than Jessica. [Dove: Remember this plot point when we finally do “BIG for Christmas”.]
The Wakefield parents let the kids know they received the middle school report cards. Elizabeth is chill about this, because she’s the perfect overachiever. Jessica is nervous, because she knows she doesn’t devote enough time to studying when there are so many more interesting things happening at school. LIKE WHAT? We are sixteen books in, and I don’t know that anything that interesting has happened, not really.
Sure enough, Jessica’s grades haven’t approved, and Ned calls her out on them. Jessica blames the mini-Olympics (ah, Dove’s favorite plot) and when Steven reminds her that was weeks ago, she blames her sprained ankle, which was also during the mini-Olympics, so not actually a great alternate answer. [Raven: I’d love a follow-up to the Mini-Olympics book in which Elizabeth, in her role as Treasurer, complains that the Mini-Olympics had gone way over budget, threatening to bankrupt the school district, and that the hall they specially built to house the bed-making competition had now crumbled into disrepair.]
Apparently, the elder Wakefields had been discussing just that morning whether Jessica had been grounded long enough, but with her crappy report card, she has at least another two weeks, and longer if they don’t see improvement. Jessica tries to beg them to reconsider, but they won’t; then she promises to work extra hard on some big school project (what school project? Everyone’s been talking about banquet, essay contest, party, not a big project) and get a good grade to bring up her average. Her parents aren’t convinced that will be enough, but Elizabeth supports her. Jessica manages to talk her parents into giving her a two week trial, and if they don’t see real improvement, then they can ground her.
AND THEY GO ALONG WITH THIS PLAN.
Oh, good, we’re back to terrible parenting and the Sweet Valley I know and hate. Excellent.
While Alice and Steven get dessert ready, Elizabeth and Jessica talk about the school project. Elizabeth offers to help her, because of course she does, but Jessica is sure she’ll be teamed up with the Unicorns and maybe some cute boys. She mentions good old Bruce Patman and Jerry McAllister, and then one of the new boys: Tom McKay, but not his brother, Dylan, who is not cute and totally boring.
Elizabeth is eye-rolly over Jessica trying to turn a big school project into a social event, but this should surprise NO ONE.
The next morning, Jessica almost makes them late because she’s gathering all the clothes she doesn’t like or that don’t fit anymore. Alice gives her permission to donate some of it to the school project, even though she normally gives them to the thrift shop. Jessica is smug over this, and Elizabeth suspicious, though of course she immediately squashes that feeling. Jessica would never do anything suspicious!
Sure enough, the first thing Jessica is doing that is suspicious is sneaking clothes she doesn’t like into the clothes she’s outgrown, so Alice won’t know she’s getting rid of them. Jessica is “completely untroubled by this slight deception.” SHOCK. Elizabeth lets it go. SHOCK.
She does want to know how donating clothes will help her grade, because she hasn’t heard of any special project like that. And if Elizabeth the Queen of School hasn’t heard of it…
Elizabeth is curious enough that she sticks around even when Jessica joins up with the Unicorns Ellen Riteman and Lila Fowler. Ellen’s bragging about the new outfit Lila bought for Kimberly’s birthday party (it makes her look like she should be in high school, at least!), and Lila asks if Jessica’s getting something new as well. Jessica is sometimes jealous of Lila, even though Lila’s her best friend. Isn’t that supposed to be Elizabeth?
Anyway, Jessica says she hasn’t asked her mother yet, because she’s had something else on her mind. She suggests they have a Unicorn meeting so they can talk about the special project they have to do. Neither Lila nor Ellen really want to talk about that. Jessica decides not to tell them the real reason she’s so gung-ho over it suddenly, and instead tries to spin it as something fun: they have to form their own company, create a product/perform a service, write reports, keep books, etc.
Jessica’s suggestion: start their own boutique.
Oh, fuck, that is actually genius. God damn it, Jessica, don’t make me like you again. Jessica talks about it some more, casually insulting the other students as she does so, her friends think it’s a great idea, Elizabeth points out that they can’t guarantee they’ll have an all-Unicorn group, that doesn’t bother the others at all (Jessica Doesn’t Take No For An Answer, remember?), and I’m still shocked by what a great idea that is and how eager I am to read about it. [Dove: Yep. When she’s on, she’s on. And it’s nice to see her using her powers for… well, still not good, but not bullying, so that’s a step forward.]
Damn it, Jessica.
Later, on the way to lunch, Elizabeth sees Tom and Dylan arguing, and we get a brief summary of the brothers, who are as different as Elizabeth and Jessica, though less identical physically.
Tom: well-known, cute, talented athlete, good student, great sense of humor.
Dylan: skinny seventh grader, awkward and ill at ease.
So we know very little about Dylan. No popularity bias here.
They’re fighting because Tom wants Dylan to come to a student government meeting and help with posters so maybe he’ll meet some people and make friends. Dylan doesn’t care about making friends, and claims he’s the dummy of the family. Oof. Poor kid.
Elizabeth has to run into the classroom to get her notebook, says hello to both boys. Tom responds with a joke and they both laugh together; Dylan doesn’t respond at all.
Then we hop to Dylan’s point of view. He’s always tongue-tied around girls, and doesn’t believe that pretty, popular Elizabeth Wakefield could possibly want to talk to him. He’s always been the boy everyone forgot, the one who is picked last even when he’s good at something, and he feels completely inferior to his little brother.
The one thing he’s interested in is the statewide essay contest, even though he doesn’t want to admit it. He loves writing, and the freedom of speech topic appeals to him. (Oh, god, am I going to have to watch this book mangle freedom of speech too? I see enough of that argument being used wrong in real life.) In fact, Dylan has been so inspired, he’s already written two drafts. Oh, kid. You’re a delight.
In the cafeteria, Elizabeth asks her BFF (when no new student has come along to distract her, and the one who isn’t Jessica) Amy Sutton if she knows Dylan; at first, Amy doesn’t even remember he exists, thinks Elizabeth means Tom, because of course. Amy doesn’t want to talk about boys, though, but about the big project instead.
Elizabeth tells her about Jessica’s boutique idea, and Amy is alarmed that Elizabeth wants to work with her sister, because they were going to do something interesting instead! Except, as Elizabeth continually points out, the teachers are choosing the groups, so how do you know you’ll be in the same group? You give Jessica grief for assuming things, but you guys are just as bad.
Before Elizabeth tells Amy about her great business idea (which she’s been thinking about, but hasn’t actually given the reader any details), their conversation turns to the essay contest, and Elizabeth tells Amy that Mr Bowman already told their class that Tom’s essay was excellent.
Conveniently, Dylan walks behind Elizabeth at just that moment.
Quick pop back into his POV (lazy writing!), and he feels sick because he was feeling good about his essay and had planned to show his English teacher tomorrow before mailing it in. He doesn’t think there’s any point to it now, though, because Tom is a winner and Dylan is a loser, and that’s how it will always be. Oh, kid, at least give it a try. Don’t reject yourself before you even try things.
The next morning Jessica is sucking up to Mr Nydick because she wants him to put her and the Unicorns into the same group. He’s pleased by her enthusiasm, but can’t make any promises. Jessica gets all pouty, but still doesn’t get her way. The pervertedness of this scene writes itself. [Raven: Sucking (up to) Mr Nydick is the official name of the third period each Wednesday at Sweet Valley Middle School.]
Jessica doesn’t want to admit to her friends that she couldn’t talk him into doing what she wanted
(probably shouldn’t have tried talking ); instead she tells them that he said if they all worked together they might make the other groups look bad, but he would see what he could do. (Already, she half believes her own story. This is a phrase and a thread that keeps happening; Jessica lies, and starts to believe her own lies. Jessica really does live in a world of her own creation.) [Dove: Jessica is marvellous.]
Mr Bowman turns up to rehash the details of the project, and point out that everyone in the group must have a job and must make a contribution. He’s advising one group, Mr Nydick another, Mrs Arnette (the Hairnet) another, and the rest of the teachers will advise one of the other groups. UMMM. You didn’t really need to name any of the other teachers then, did you?
Head hop to Dylan, who is standing on his own. He’s been dreading this project because at least usually he and Tom are in different classes, but with the sixth and seventh grade combined for this project, he’s going to look even worse than usual.
Elizabeth ends up in the group advised by Mr Bowman, and she’s with Amy. GEE. NO FAVORITISM GOING ON HERE AT ALL. Their group is rounded out with Dylan, because of course; Mr Bowman only says McKay at first, though, and the group is excited to have Tom. They don’t have Tom. Mr Bowman is a jackass.
Elizabeth tries to be nice to Dylan because she feels sorry for the public snubbing he just went through; Amy doesn’t understand why she has to be so nice to everyone. Fuck off, Amy. Dylan doesn’t really give anything to the conversation, though. She asks if he can draw; he doesn’t. She asks if he’s good in wood shop; he almost cut off his finger.
Mr Bowman talks to the group. Dylan hangs at the edge, anger bubbling because everyone is always mocking him and judging him. I’m wondering if we’re going to get a Very Special Episode about school shootings. This is pre-Columbine, though, I think. [Dove: I had the same worry. Especially because he’s called Dylan.] [Raven: Still likely to be full of fat-shaming as Bruce Patman suggests the school all hide behind Lois Waller.]
Meanwhile, many of the Unicorns end up in Mrs Arnette’s group, but not Jessica, who is in Ms Wyler’s group. She’s strict, but more fun than Mrs Arnette. She’s joined by Lila, Ellen, Kimberly, and Betsy Gordon, all Unicorns. First of all, who are all the Unicorns in Arnette’s group then? Second, how the fuck did they all end up in the same group? And with Tom, too. The teachers put together the group; the whole point of having teachers put together groups is to separate cliques and make people work with new people. This is doing jack shit.
When Jessica tells her group about her boutique idea, Kerry Glenn (whoever the fuck that is) says it’s too complicated. [Dove: As explained on the characters page: Kerry Glenn and Cammi Adams are interchangeable people, useful for when you need a non-important, non-Unicorn to say something (probably something stupid or uncool, or a bit swoony about a cool person). Also, it was Kerry’s cabin Jess lied about going to in The Older Boy.] She wants to make pot holders, because they sold tons of them in third grade. That was not the right thing to say, Kerry, and Jessica and Lila both tear into her for her boring, baby-ish idea. One of the boys wants to know what they do with the money; students are being given $20 each, and the company with the biggest profit gets the highest grade and free sundaes.
Jerry McAllister thinks that boutiques are for girls, and wants to know what the boys will do. How very gender normative of you, Jerry. Jessica knows that she needs the boys on her side, and says that the boys can build the booth, and they’ll sell boys stuff, too.
Mary Wallace wants to work on the booth, too, and points out that they have to make reports and financial statements and transportation schedules, so there will be plenty of work for everyone. Mary is another fucking Unicorn in this damn group. How the fuck did this happen? (She’s also my favorite Unicorn, and I’d much rather this book was from her POV.)
Jessica is surprised by how much work this project is becoming (I’m sure you’re shocked, after her surprise at how much work being student council president was, too), but goes along with it. She gets everyone to vote for her idea, and Jessica manipulates Tom into nominating her for president. When Lila says they need VPs too, Jessica says she’ll appoint them. Some of the other kids are understandably annoyed by that, but she holds firm. She also decides to call their company the Unicorn Boutique.
Lila is the one who shoots that down, because not all the Unicorns are in the same group. I mean, who cares if the non-Unicorns in your group want a say in the name or anything. Never change, Lila. Never change. Jessica then suggests the Purple Palace, but Jerry shoots that one down. Instead, he suggests Underwear from Outer Space, and nearly falls off the bleachers laughing. Oh boy. [Raven: That’s literally the most depressing thing I’ve ever read.]
Tom comes up with Sweet Valley Vogue, which is a pretty good name, actually; Jessica, of course, thinks it is brilliant. Tom admits he’s seen his mom’s fashion magazines lying around the house. So, less brilliant and more a ripoff of, you know, Vogue, but you do you, kid.
They come up with a plan of action that includes collecting the clothes they’ll use as inventory, sorting and pricing, and Jerry fat shames Lois Waller, who isn’t even in the fucking book so far, because they’ll need small, medium, and blimp. I wish you’d fallen off the bleachers and broken your neck, asshole.
Jessica tells him they need to get back to business because she remembers how Elizabeth once lectured her on making fun of people’s weight problems. How very magnanimous of you, Wakefield. (No, really, it’s actually a positive step for Jessica. A teeny, minuscule step, but a step.) [Raven: I was pleasantly surprised by this. I reckon that fat-shaming Lois, like mentioning that the twins have identical dimples or that Liz is the oldest by four minutes, is something demanded by the publishers as a repeatable motif in every book. If so, I think this tiny act of defiance by this particular Jamie Suzanne is a nice touch, a little rebellion by an author that disagrees with their decree.]
Elizabeth’s group is fighting over what kind of company to start. A couple of the boys want to sell slingshots, and Elizabeth is starting to lose her patience. What patience? You pretty much only ever have patience for Jessica! She reminds them the school won’t let them sell slingshots, and finally tells them about her idea, which is to form a publishing company and publishing a book of student writings.
… how long does this project last? Because even just gathering writing and putting out a book is a ton of fucking work.
She says they can use some of the essays for the big state contest, but I am not sure the rules of the contest would allow them to be published elsewhere, even just in a school project like this. They can also ask students to contribute stories and poems they’ve already written.
Nora Mercandy (NORA! I MISS YOU NORA! HOW ARE YOUR MAGIC TRICKS COMING ALONG?) asks how they will print the book, because they don’t have any equipment. Elizabeth suggests they type it on the newspaper’s typewriter (what about the one you have at home, Wakefield?!), and have Mr Bowman help them duplicate it. Then they can draw illustrations, staple the books together, and put covers on them. Gee, only that? It’ll be a snap.
The other students are starting to get enthusiastic, but Dylan still looks grumpy. Elizabeth wonders what’s wrong with him, and so we jump to Dylan’s POV, because that’s how this book fucking works. Damn lazy writing. At least this time, it was during a chapter break.
Dylan is still grumbling over the grades being put together, even though he and Tom aren’t in the same group. I can’t really blame him, because that was a shit reaction earlier from his group members, but it’s getting kind of repetitive, ghost writer.
Dylan is feeling very painful and left out, but also won’t meet Elizabeth’s eyes, because no one cares what he thinks. Dylan, I think you are making things worse for yourself, and also that you might very well be depressed. One of the boys asks if he can use a hammer, but is hesitant because of Dylan’s scowl. Dylan does not use a hammer. He also keeps thinking that if Tom wasn’t around, maybe he’d be better liked.
… is Dylan going to try to kill Tom? Damn, Sweet Valley has the potential to be Bleak Valley in the fucking text! [Raven: This is all very Fight Club. In fact, “Dylan and Tom McKay” is an anagram of “I am Tyler Durden” (for a very specific and quite incorrect definition of the word “anagram”).]
Later when Dylan and Tom meet up, Tom tries to talk to him about their projects, Dylan sees that Tom has his backpack, and Dylan’s anger blows up. He shoves his brother, and Tom falls backward into one of the long tables, spilling food and startling the girls at the table, including Elizabeth, who has had chocolate milk spilled on her.
She cries at him to watch out, and Dylan lunges at him.
Jump to Elizabeth’s POV (though, again, at least it is with a chapter break). Elizabeth (who is sitting with Amy and Julie Porter) watches in shock as Dylan and Tom fight. Though Tom is younger and shorter, he really is more athletic, and can step away from Dylan’s wild swings. He keeps asking what’s wrong, and telling Dylan he doesn’t want to fight, but Dylan won’t answer.
Elizabeth remembers that fight they had, and thinks she might understand more about the one-sided fight than anyone else. Because of course Saint Elizabeth knows best. Everyone keeps shouting at Dylan to leave Tom alone; Tom keeps wanting to talk; Dylan keeps wanting to fight — and then he lands a punch and bloodies Tom’s nose.
Where the fuck are the teachers or cafeteria staff? Mr Bowman eventually turns up, but not in time to see what’s actually happening. Tom says he slipped and hit his nose on the table, and Mr Bowman sends him to the nurse, then tells him no more accidents, with a “meaningful look”. UMM. If you know what happened, MR BOWMAN, you should do something about it. What with you being A FUCKING ADULT IN CHARGE OF THESE KIDS AND ALL.
Elizabeth begs the others to give Dylan a chance, because sometimes people do strange things when they’re unhappy. She brings up Brooke Dennis and the time the Wakefields pretended they had a triplet to trick her, because all is fun and games when the Wakefields are around. Amy is reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt, because his parents aren’t divorced, so there’s no way he could have any problems at home. Because no one else you know has had any problem except for divorced parents. God, Amy. You should rock on over to the Unicorns with all that judgment. She then calls him a total psycho, so fuck off, Amy, and Elizabeth thinks that Dylan’s going to be a complete outcast if he keeps acting like he is. Pretty sure he’s already there, and it’s not all his fault, either, clearly, because Sweet Valley Middle School is filled with little shits.
The whole school is gossiping about the fight the rest of the day, and yet still the teachers do nothing. Betsy Gordon claims that Dylan practically murdered his brother, and Jessica thinks Dylan spilled chocolate milk on Elizabeth’s sweater on purpose (with the implication being the real tragedy here is that Jessica was going to borrow it tomorrow and now she can’t). [Dove: If you just accept how Jessica’s mind works, you start loving her for shit like this.] [Wing: Not really. When I like her, I like her despite shit like this.]
Talk turns to Kimberly’s party, and she’s invited pretty much all of the seventh grade, with a few exceptions. GEE. I WONDER WHO IS BEING LEFT OUT. (Also, the best of the sixth graders, because, again, no favoritism and popularity bullshit in Sweet Valley. Not a bit.)
We learn that Elizabeth was elected president of her company, Sweet Valley Publishing Company, and she starts putting people to work immediately after school. Amy is going through student writing to choose the ones they should include, and they want to use as many as possible. (Elizabeth also describes Amy’s hair as “stringy” which is a first, I think, but also is kind of a shitty way to describe her BFF.) Most of the entries are from the essay contest; Mr Bowman gave them permission to use some in the booklet.
UMMM. If students are submitting these to an essay contest, that does not mean they are giving you permission to show them to other students, BOWMAN. Damn.
Lois brings in the poetry submissions, and is super shy and impressed by Elizabeth. LOIS. STOP. NONE OF THEM DESERVE YOU. [Raven: Yeah, Lois, don’t be a sponge.]
Elizabeth puts Ronnie and Randy to work building the display case for the books, and Olivia on drawing illustrations. Everyone is hard at work, only sometimes joking and giggling, but when the room goes silent, Elizabeth realizes that Dylan has shown up at last.
Elizabeth feels sympathy for him, and sets him to work typing a clean copy of the essays Amy and Elizabeth have already read through which will probably be approved for final inclusion. Why — why do the essays need a clean copy? Are these essays that Mr Bowman has graded? ARE YOU SHARING STUDENTS’ GRADED WORK WITH OTHER STUDENTS? HOLY FUCKING SHIT, BOWMAN, YOU ARE TERRIBLE. [Dove: *blinks* Shiiiiit. I just assumed that they were making busy work (either for Dylan in the book, or by Jamie Suzanne so all of her characters had something to do. All teachers suck in this school.] [Raven: MOST teachers suck. Mr Nydick IS sucked.]
The students leave, the boys managing to mock Dylan one more time, and Dylan slips out without saying good-bye. Though he told her he could type a little, his work is a mess, and Elizabeth will have to redo it all. Not only that, he’s accidentally mixed some of his papers into the essays, including an old math worksheet. Gee, is she going to conveniently find some of his writing and turn everything around? She certainly hasn’t done something like that before.
Elizabeth meets up with Jessica to walk home from school, and Jessica tells her that Tom has been defending his brother. Oh, Tom, I like you quite a bit [Dove: Oh, just you wait until the next book. Just you wait, Wing.]. Don’t waste time with the Unicorns, who will only drag you down.
The girls set the table for dinner again (they’re doing an awful lot of that; when is Steven’s turn?), and their parents are pleased with how dedicated Jessica is being to the school project. Elizabeth is skeptical, and suspects that Jessica’s enthusiasm is really about making sure she can go to Kimberly’s birthday party. How is that even a question, Lizzie? You’ve met your sister, right?
Steven and Jessica bicker, Steven lets it slip that Gloria Andrews thinks he looks cool, Jessica teases him about finding out what girl he likes, though he denies it, and Ned asks Elizabeth about her project, finally.
And then it turns out Jessica has a schedule conflict; she’s supposed to go to the “twilight show at the Valley Cinema” with Lila on Friday, which is at the same time that they’re supposed to attend Steven’s sports banquet, where the trophy winners will be announced and they will all receive their letters. Steven’s excited, and it’s kind of cute. Lettering can be a big deal in high school. [Raven: What the hell is Lettering? I think I vaguely know, but nothing specific.] [Wing: Yay, time for another Wing Educational Power Hour: Lettering means earning a fabric letter for participating in some school activity. In media, it’s usually for sports, but it can also be for things like band and choir and academics. You can get multiple letters for multiple activities, but sometimes get pins instead after the first one. Letters and pins are usually worn on a letter jacket, which will be in school colors and will usually have a student’s name, year of graduation, and other decoration on it. Awards and medals are sometimes added. It sounds ridiculous, but is a huge part of school spirit, and a big deal. At least in part because letter jackets are fucking expensive. I still have mine, actually, packed away somewhere.]
(Also, when reading through this scene, I had a horrifying moment of thinking about how much Jessica would have loved Twilight. Oh god.) [Dove: I’m not sure, I think Elizabeth would love it and ship Edward/Bella. I think… oh, wait, yes, Jessica would (and will) marry for money. And definitely for eternal beauty. I’m going to write that fanfic one day.] [Wing: Jessica would, I think, be a fan of Rosalie more than Bella, it is true, but I think she would love the Cullens.]
Jessica storms off, snapping that she knows who is actually important in the family. Really, Jessica? REALLY? You talk them into everything, and you’re trying to stay on their good side so you can go to the party. FOCUS, KID.
(Super realistic selfish response and shortsightedness, though.)
And, of course, the Wakefield parents don’t actually parent. All Alice is does is frown at the temper tantrum. [Dove: Also, this feeling of being less important to her family than Elizabeth (and all the evidence that this is true) is something that does continue into Sweet Valley High.] [Wing: At this point, I realized there was a bit of a parallel going on with this story and the b story, what with one sibling feeling less important than the other sibling. It’ll be interesting to see this thing with Jessica unfold. Though really, at this point she feels less important than Steven, not Elizabeth.]
OH I AM SURE YOU ARE GOING TO BE SURPRISED THAT AFTER DINNER, ELIZABETH FINDS AN AMAZING ESSAY ABOUT FREEDOM OF SPEECH. IT’S EVEN BETTER THAN HER ESSAY.
And then she realizes it is Dylan’s work. She’s suddenly afraid he forgot to mail it in, and calls his house to ask, but he tells her to throw it away. She doesn’t want to do that, because it’s so good, but she’s not sure she should submit it for him either.
For about half a second. And then she decides that Elizabeth Knows Best.
On Thursday, the Wakefields walk to school together, Elizabeth hoping that Dylan will forgive her (if you’re that worried about him needing to forgive you, you probably shouldn’t have done it in the first place!), and Jessica talking about how two VPs are enough, and she already appointed Lila and Kimberly, but now Tamara and Betsy want to be VPs too. Being president is turning out to be more trouble than it’s worth, and I’m laughing at Jessica being so true to herself and making the same mistakes over and over.
Fuck. She’s terrible, but I think she’s wormed her way into my heart. Like a knife through the back. [Raven: That’s our glorious girl.]
But when confronted, Jessica gives in and makes Tamara VP of displays and Betsy VP of supervision. And then a couple of the boys VP of construction. Oh, lord. This is how companies end up top-heavy, with too many executives and too few people doing the actual work. [Dove: … so, well done Jessica for perfect accuracy? This was how my last firm was, there were three layers of management to manage two of us. They were so busy managing us and having meetings about it, that we were rushed off our feet trying to do the worker bee work. Ironically, in my current job, I’m a manager and I have no team.]
SURE ENOUGH, Lila keeps saying that VPs can’t do all the work, and then none of them want to work. Lila suggests they take a break. A break from what? You haven’t done shit, Lila! Jessica has to break the news that she can’t go to the movies, but cheers herself up by talking about Kimberly’s party and whether Tom will ask her to dance.
Two hours later, when Ms Wyler returns, they have one poster almost finished, and they haven’t done anything else. Wyler is unimpressed. Jessica is starting to worry about how much they have to do. When Wyler points out that being president means she has to make sure the work gets done, Jessica is indignant, because it’s not her fault they can’t keep their mind on their work.
Oh, Jessica. Have you learned nothing? (Nope.) In fact, while walking home with Elizabeth, she flat out says that she thought being president would be fun, but instead it is more to worry about. This sounds familiar. (And for more than one reason.)
Over dinner, their parents again show interest in their children’s lives, which is a shocking turn of events from earlier books. Elizabeth is pleased to talk about her publishing business, but Jessica tries to brush the question off. Finally she admits that they’re having some problems, and actually tells the family about what has happened. Steven teases her for making her company into an upside-down pyramid, which was pretty much my earlier complaint. Fuck. I don’t want to share thoughts with Steven. Ned says the same thing in a much less polite way, and points out that the more important the title, the more responsibility you have, and she should be making sure everyone gets their jobs done, even her VPs.
Jessica. Asks. for. Help.
JESSICA. ASKS. FOR. HELP. [Raven: And not, as we’d expect, by asking Lila for help in burying a body.] [Wing: I expect that shows up in SVH.]
Realistic help. From her father. In a really smart move. Not just trying to trick her sister into doing her work for her, but she actually asks for help and Ned actually gives good advice and I don’t even know what to do with all this.
(I don’t like this book much at all. But I don’t hate it, either, and parts of it are working really well. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!)
The next day, Jessica puts her father’s advice into play, and under her supervision, her group finishes a ton of work. I’m impressed, Wakefield!
But later, the old Jessica returns as she wheedles Elizabeth into helping her with her transportation schedule, even though Elizabeth has a bunch of work to do on her own project. Elizabeth, why are you such a pushover?
Jessica grumbles again about the sports banquet, but then perks up at the idea of seeing Josh again, because that went so well for her. (I’ll admit, it made a pretty good book, though.)
She finds an invitation to Kimberly’s party in her locker. That’s kind of adorable. Jessica’s smug because she knew that they would be invited; Elizabeth admits that she hadn’t known, and was surprised because Kimberly didn’t invite many sixth graders, though her mother made her invited all the seventh graders.
Head hop to Dylan walking home alone and thinking about his terrible day. At lunch, all anyone is talking about is Kimberly’s party, and that continued throughout the day. He’s feeling left out, because he overhears someone saying that Kimberly invited the entire seventh grade, but he doesn’t find an invitation in his locker. He starts to feel more and more upset, and when he gets home, he learns that Tom was invited to the party. Tom assumes he was, too, of course. Dylan can’t bring himself to admit that he wasn’t invited, and goes off alone to his room. He wants to run away, because no one cares about him, not even his family; he’s afraid of being all alone, though.
UGH KID. You are breaking my heart. I wish you’d had the Crisis Text Line back then. You sound like you need someone to talk to.
Saturday, he’s alone at the house, and takes off on his bike to the bus station. His plan is to buy a ticket to L.A., lie about his age, and find a job. He doesn’t think anyone will bother looking for him. [Dove: New tag: “I’m running away”. We may need this again.] [Wing: We’ve already needed it before, so I’m sure it will come up in the future again.]
His plan falls apart as soon as he gets to the bus station, because he doesn’t have enough money for the ticket. He decides to wait a week until he gets his allowance again, and then try again. Everyone will be at Kimberly’s party, and no one will even notice he’s gone.
As he’s leaving, he nearly walks into Jessica, who is there to pick up a schedule for her project. (And he immediately recognizes her as Jessica, not Elizabeth, which is more than their friends can do sometimes.)
She asks if he’s going to take a trip, and he says he’s going to visit his aunt in San Francisco. He bumbles through a brief conversation, Jessica is, as always, distracted by the things she wants, and as soon as she gets her schedule, she takes off. He’s worried that she suspects something, though, or that she will tell. He considers changing his plan, but then decides that he’s not wanted and he’s not going to stay around.
He skips the company meeting on Monday; on Tuesday, Elizabeth tracks him down in the library, and brings him back to the office. He does his part to help assemble the journals. He keeps reminding himself that Friday is the day he’ll leave, and that helps him get through everything.
The rest of the week, the students sell their products during a long lunch period each day. The Sweet Valley Journal is a big hit, and Dylan feels a little pride at his small part in helping create the book. [Raven: Why the hell is a book of recycled school essays a big hit amongst the student body? Literally the only person I can see buying this is Elizabeth herself. The Unicorn Celebrity Cookbook was a much better idea.]
Tom, ever the supportive brother, says it is great, and the only thing missing is some of Dylan’s writing. He even tells him that Elizabeth wanted to include his work after seeing what a good writer he is, but he wouldn’t give her anything to consider. Dylan had already forgotten about her seeing his essay, and decides that she was just being polite, surely she didn’t mean what she said to Tom.
Tom invites him to go look at some of the other things, but Dylan isn’t interested because “[t]he fog of misery that had engulfed him all week made it impossible to enjoy looking over the other companies’ products…” Kid. You are breaking my heart. I wish you could get the help it sounds like you need. (You know, if you were a real person.)
On Friday, he has the money, but some of his enthusiasm for the plan has faded. The idea of being alone, far away from his family, still bothers him, but he stubbornly clings to his decision. This is driven home by the fact that everyone is talking about Kimberly’s party.
(Two things. One, how far away can L.A. be from Sweet Valley? Not that far! Though he is very young, and it makes sense it feels far to him. Two, Betsy got Kimberly the new Johnny Buck album, because of course she did.) [Dove: Sweet Valley was separate from LA in this era, but when the Sweet Valley Confidential/Sweet Life new books came out, it was ret-conned to be a suburb of LA. Which makes so little sense.]
[Wing: But where is it then?]
At lunch, he hears a bunch of eighth-grade students talking about how great it is that a student from Sweet Valley won the state essay contest, and that McKay boy — but Dylan turns away without listening. I do not for an instant believe that everyone calls them by their last name. NOT FOR A DAMN INSTANT. This is just sloppy writing to force conflict.
Dylan decides this is good, because his parents will be so proud of Tom, they probably won’t even notice that Dylan is missing that night.
Elizabeth’s group sells all the books and then work together to put everything away and finish their reports. Elizabeth and Amy then head around to check the other booths, because of course they sell out before all the others.
They find Jessica alone at her booth with a sparse collection of clothes and jewelry. They’ve not sold a lot, though; instead, all the group members have been trading for each other’s clothes, and didn’t leave any inventory to make a profit. Jessica frowns at this, but then quickly puts out all the good clothes and calls some people over. She then leaves Elizabeth to be the salesperson while she finds the rest of her company and demotes a bunch of VPs. I bet that’s going to go well.
Of course with Elizabeth’s help, Jessica manages to sell everything. After she helps Jessica clean up (what happened to finding the rest of your group, Wakefield?), Elizabeth rushes off to lunch, where Julie tells them that Ms Pauley, their homeroom teacher, is leaving, so they’ll have a new teacher soon. Setting up for the next book? (I haven’t looked ahead to see what Dove is recapping next week.)
Amy has even more interesting news, that Dylan won the essay contest. Elizabeth realizes that she never told him she entered his essay. FAIL, SAINT ELIZABETH. She runs off to find him with Amy and Julie’s help, but they have no luck.
In class, Elizabeth can’t stop thinking about Dylan telling her to throw away the essay, and how having a brother like Tom, who is vivacious and good at so many things, must be hard. She doesn’t manage to find him for the rest of the day, though, not even after school.
Jessica is thrilled that they got an A (an A-, Tamara corrects, but Jessica doesn’t care), and Elizabeth congratulates her, but then says she needs to find Dylan. She asks if Kimberly thinks he’s already left for her party. How the hell would she know, even if he was invited?
Kimberly finally admits that she didn’t invite him even though her parents told her to invite the entire class. Kimberly is a complete and total jackass, and she says she “forgot” to give him his invitation. Elizabeth blows up at her, because he must feel terrible with everyone else talking about the party. Which is true, but (a) you talk shit about people all the time and do thoughtless things, (b) you don’t seem to give a fuck about the sixth graders who are being left out (and who are being left out as not the “best” of the class), and (c) you have judged the hell out of him this whole book.
They all look for him after this guilt trip, but no one can find him. Jessica says he turns up in weird places, and mentions seeing him at the station. Elizabeth thinks that his story is weird, and then Tom rocks up and says they don’t even have an aunt in San Francisco. They take off for the bus station at a flat run, and make it in record time.
They find him pretty quickly, and Tom confronts his brother, angry and worried. Dylan admits he was running away, and says that he didn’t think Tom would even notice, because he’d be at the party. Tom snaps that he could never have fun at a party if his brother was missing. Ugh, Tom, you are so great.
Dylan goes on to talk about how alone and unwanted he’s felt, and my heart breaks for him, and for them as brothers. Elizabeth gives Dylan his invitation to the party, and spins a lie about Kimberly being very sorry. Dylan sees right through that, though, and Elizabeth has to admit the truth.
Elizabeth draws a parallel between the brothers and how people view her and Jessica, because everything must come down to the Wakefields. Elizabeth then tells him that she mailed his essay to the contest and he won.
There’s a long moment between the brothers, and then everything is just fine again, all is right with the world, with a brother like Tom and a friendly like Elizabeth Wakefield, he’s ready to show the seventh grade the new Dylan.
There it is. There’s the Sweet Valley that annoys me so much, everything wrapped up in shiny, too neat, identical bows. [Raven: One of the bows is four minutes older than the other.]
At the party, everyone wants to talk to Dylan about the essay, Jessica says that she heard the new teacher is a man, and she hopes he’s good looking (oh, god, is this going to be another Jessica and the Older Boy type thing?), and sure enough, we’re told to find out what the new teacher will be like in the next book. Awesome.
Just when I thought I’d been sucked into enjoying another book, it couldn’t stick that landing. Too neat, too easy, and completely unearned, especially with so many hints at Dylan actually being depressed. That’s not how depression works. It’s not magically cured by winning a contest. I guess it’s a good thing that they didn’t actually use the word “depression” but all the descriptions were there.
Still, I liked far too much of this book. WHY, SWEET VALLEY? WHY?
[Dove: I think you like Jessica. I’m being smug about that.]
[Raven: This was okay. Nothing special, nothing terrible. I enjoyed the good parts, and disliked the bad. As a recapper and commenter, I think I like these middling books best of all, as they give good scope for both mockery and praise. So yay! Way to be average, Jamie Suzanne!]
[Wing: Literal laugh out loud at that last sentence. And since I hurt my ribs the other day, OUCH.]
I am the evil twin. I’m in a feud with R.L. Stine, but he hasn’t found me here yet. Every story needs more werewolves.