Title: Elizabeth and the Orphans
Tagline: Can Melissa and Andy make it on their own? [Raven: They’ve got to hold on to what they’ve got. It doesn’t make a difference if they make it or not. They’ve got each other, and that’s a lot. For love… they’ll give it a shot. #AndyUsedToWorkOnTheDocks.]
Summary: Friends in need…
Elizabeth Wakefield’s friend Melissa McCormick needs help. Her mother has suddenly died, leaving Melissa and her brother, Andy, alone. Their father left years ago, so they have only each other to depend on.
If the social workers find out that Melissa and Andy are now orphans, they will be put in separate foster homes. So Andy devises a plan: he and Melissa will get jobs to pay the bills and they’ll tell everyone that their father is returning home soon.
Only Elizabeth knows the truth, and she sees how fast the bills and responsibilities are piling up. She also knows she has to do something—the right thing—before it’s too late.
I have to be honest, I didn’t re-read this one after purchase. I really liked Melissa in a later book, Poor Lila, but I don’t know if her characterisation is the same in both. Honestly, I don’t like parent death books. It pisses me off. I know everyone’s grief process is different, but I have never once seen a kid in a book grieve like I did.
Backstory, my dad died when I was nine. (My well-meaning but idiotic family never explained he got cancer. They told me he had a stomach bug. This has left me with a deep-seated phobia of vomiting.) What happened was: he was healthy, he was sick for a few months, he died. I cried for about 20 minutes straight after hearing about it, and while I was intermittently sad for a period of time after, I was not broken. This event changed my life, obviously, but mostly because it left me in the care of an emotional abuser. I hate parent death books because most of the time the grief is gigantic and life-changing, and the parent is their best friend, even twenty years later the wound isn’t healed, and oh gosh, wouldn’t things just be perfect if dead parent was still alive?
For this reason, I try to avoid books with a parent death in them. So I read this once, maybe twice, for completest reasons, but never returned.
[Wing: Sorry, all, unexpected family stuff over the weekend, and I’m only having a chance to comment Monday, 20 August, around 10 a.m. Central USA time.]
We open with Jessica asking a question that has alarming connotations:
“How do you get a divorce from your brother?” Jessica Wakefield asked in social studies class Monday morning.
Apparently she and Steven have married, and come to think of it, it’s illegal, creepy and the guy is a barely functional asshat who can’t stop eating, so Jessica wants her 50% of everything he owns and to find a new guy.
This is actually the lead-in to a social studies school project, where everyone will pair up, interview their partner about their family and produce a report on what they’ve learned. Uh… well, I suppose it’s a good thing everyone in Sweet Valley is happily married with 2.4 kids, a dog and a white picket fence, otherwise this could be a very awkward project.
Also, I actually lied about my dad being dead. I found that people got weird when I told them. They would expect me to act like the kids in the books I ranted about above – all broken, and I’d fall to pieces if they said their dad was picking them up from school or whatever. Or they’d cry too. Over a dead dude they never met. I found everyone’s emotions regarding my dead father to be exhausting. So I said that my parents were divorced and he lived in Milton Keynes. I have no idea why I picked Milton Keynes. I’ve never been there, I’ve never met anyone from there, I’ve never seen movies or read books set there. I just picked it. Obviously, when the school found out about my lie, they thought I was crazy. And I’m sure back then I was, but not over this. I was just lying to avoid bullshit.
tl;dr: I would resent the fuck out of this project. [Raven: I’ve been to Milton Keynes. It’s quite nice.]
Ms Arnette says she’s going to pick names out of a hat because there was so much grumbling last time about partners. Actually, that’s a nice bit of continuity, referring to the time nobody wanted to pair with Jessica and Mandy Miller stepped in. Elizabeth thinks the same, noting that nobody wants to gamble their grade on her twin, while everyone wants to work with the saintly Wakefield, because:
Not only was she a good student, she was a gifted writer, too. She and her friends had founded The Sweet Valley Sixers, the sixth-grade newspaper, and she dreamed of becoming a professional writer someday.
Fuck. Off. Elizabeth. It’s incredibly gauche to be that smug. [Wing: Smug, or confident? And it’s not like she’s telling other people, we’re just in her head. Unfortunately, because I don’t particularly like her, but it is private.]
Jessica gets paired with Lila, which she counts as a win, because she’ll only have to interview a single person – George Fowler. And since she just spent a week in Hawaii with him… well, over Christmas, the third Christmas I think… well, fuck, has it even happened yet? I am confuse. [Raven: Yeah, and what about Bambi, the possible step-mother?] [Wing: Bambi! I love Bambi.]
Elizabeth is paired with Melissa McCormick. After class, she asks about Melissa’s family, and Melissa says she has a brother and a mom, and that’s it. She’s a bit embarrassed about this, so again, see my above point about having your family structure laid out to the class for a project.
Elizabeth notices Melissa’s blush, and worries that she’s upset her. She invites Melissa over to work on the project, then they separate to go to different classes.
“Too bad you got stuck with someone so boring,” Jessica commented as they watched Melissa walk down the hall.
“How do you know she’s boring?” Elizabeth demanded. “We hardly know her.”
“If she were worth knowing, we’d know her,” Lila remarked.
Normally I would say “never change, Lila”, but Poor Lila is coming, and it’s magnificent.
Over to Melissa, she meets her brother, Andy, after school and he walks her home. She brings up their dad, and Andy shuts her down quickly. He doesn’t exist as far as Andy’s concerned – after all, he just left, never gets in contact, and doesn’t even send a card on their birthdays.
Melissa remembers the fights between her parents, not what was said, but “doors slamming so hard the paintings on the wall shook” and the “angry, sullen dinners”. That does not sound like two adults who know how to argue maturely. Her dad wrote her a letter after he left.
“I love you kids,” he’d written, “but sometimes love isn’t enough.”
Ok, so love wasn’t enough to keep your marriage alive, that’s fine, Melissa’s Dad, but what’s your excuse for not contacting your kids?
“I love you, but sometimes love just ain’t enough to make me get off my ass and buy a $1.99 birthday card and a fucking stamp.”
“I love you, but sometimes love just ain’t enough to pay my telephone bills, so I won’t call you.”
“I love you, but sometimes love just ain’t enough to get me in the car to drive over and see you.”
[Raven: “I love you, but sometimes you’re a right pair of bellends, truth be told.”]
When Melissa and Andy get home, they find their mother lying on the couch. You can tell she’s sick and not being lazy like Mr Thomas’ girlfriend, because she’s got a rug across her legs. She has a heart condition that is getting worse, and sometimes requires hospitalisation. Her boss let her leave early because she wasn’t feeling well.
So. She’s not long for this world, is she?
Melissa spots her father’s guitar, which she keeps in her room. She likes to think that her dad left it there because he’s coming back.
Back with the Wakefields, we find out what the B-plot is, and it’s a doozy. Ever since Steven got together with Cathy, he’s always on the phone. Jessica is furious about this because everyone knows she will totally die if she doesn’t gossip with the Unicorns. When she complains to the parents they suggest she make a rota. I’m fucking riveted. This is A+ storytelling.
The next day at lunch, Jessica works on the rota, and the only reason I mention this is because it gives us some A+ dialogue – and not from Lila, but from Janet.
“What is that thing you’ve been working on?” Lila asked the next day at the Unicorner, the table where the Unicorns always gathered for lunch.
“It better not be homework,” Janet Howell warned. Janet, an eighth grader, was the president of the Unicorns. “You know we don’t allow homework at the Unicorner. It’s bad for our image.”
Never change, you vapid little morons. [Raven: Unicorn One-Liners: Saving Boring Books Since 1986.]
Obviously, the rota gives Steven and Elizabeth very few precious seconds on the phone.
Over with Team Boring (Amy and Elizabeth, no sign of Julie so far), they see Melissa and are all obsessed with her because they know she is Elizabeth’s Book-long Soulmate. Elizabeth invites her to the Wakefield Compound to start working on their report, but Mr Clark, the principal, asks Melissa to come with him.
Team Boring are very interested in this, because they don’t think Melissa is the type to get into trouble – after all, it’s not like she’s poor and/or her surname is Rizzo – Elizabeth wonders if it’s “something else” but she doesn’t know what. How incredibly specific. They hear a cry.
Melissa emerged from the classroom with her face buried in her hands. Mr. Clark had his arm draped around her shoulder, as if he were trying to comfort her.
Melissa also knows that she is BFF of the week and confides in Team Boring without hesitation, even though she literally met Elizabeth yesterday. Her mother’s had a heart attack and is in hospital.
Mr Clark gives her a ride to the hospital. She notices there’s dog fur on the seats, and he apologises, saying he has a golden retriever who likes to sit in the front seat. Then he tries to reassure her that everything’s going to be ok. Well… that’s actually quite nice.
Mr Clarke accompanies her into the hospital and asks for directions. Melissa knows where the ICU is though, because she’s been there before – this is not Mrs McCormick’s first heart attack. Jeez. That’s actually pretty dark for Sweet Valley. She sees her brother, and hugs him – she notes they haven’t hugged that long since the last time their mom was in hospital.
Andy was brought to the hospital by his vice-principal, Ms Hollingsworth. I don’t know if that’s actually the name of the SVH vice-principal, or even if they have one – can any of our lovely readers confirm?
They’re able to see mom for a few minutes, and before they go in, Melissa gives herself a pep talk about not reacting, no matter how it looks, because she doesn’t want her mother to see worry on her face.
Finally Mrs. McCormick opened her eyes again. “I want you to promise me that you’ll be good to each other,” she said, struggling with each word. Slowly she turned her head toward Andy. “Take care of your sister, Andy.”
“I will,” he promised.
“I love you both very much,” Mrs. McCormick said. She smiled a smile that made Melissa’s heart wrench. It was a peaceful smile, one that said, I’m giving up now.
“I love you, Mom,” Melissa said, tears spilling down her cheeks.
“I love you, too, Mom,” Andy echoed, but Mrs. McCormick’s eyes had already dosed, and she seemed to be sleeping soundly.
Obviously, it’s meant to be a moving scene, but I’m one of those people who can’t take deathbed wishes seriously. Maybe if I’d have gotten one, there would be a very different Dove typing this. But I didn’t, and I find them hard to get into, because if you need to ask your kids while dying to get them to do a thing, then possibly you should have raised them differently. [Dove: Note from the future: John McCain’s dying wish that Trump not come to his funeral should definitely be respected.]
For example, I worked in the probate department of a very awful law firm for several years. One client insisted that a deathbed letter go in with his will. In it were the lyrics to “Colours of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas, and a reminder to never judge a person based on their skin colour. The lawyer dealing with it burst into tears by such a moving letter. I raised an eyebrow and said, “If he didn’t want a racist kid, maybe he should’ve raised him better.” (Obvs, we weren’t in front of the client at the time.)
With all that said, Mrs McCormick has clearly raised two kids who care for each other, and was just reiterating that they should continue to do so. I think my issue with the Pocahontas letter was that it simply read as a “don’t be racist” missive, rather than a loving goodbye. And I think it’s coloured my view on deathbed requests/letters. Also, I worked for the funeral directors who cremated my father, and spent a year of that time arranging baby funerals. So you could argue that I’ve got a heart of rock and am far too cold and logical for this kind of thing to hit me on an emotional level.
Anyway, Andy and Melissa have to leave, and they’re ushered by a nurse – Carol, whom they know from previous hospital visits – into the cafeteria to get something to eat, rather than hovering around the waiting room. Apparently that’s where their principals have gone. The kids say no to this, they want to be as close to Mrs McCormick as possible.
Melissa blurts out what if something happens, because they don’t have anyone but each other. Andy says nothing will happen. Andy clearly hasn’t read the title of this book. [Raven: Spoilers! Maybe they are different orphans.] [Dove: A meteor hits the house where the Wakefields are attending the weekly key party. There’s a whole bunch of orphans now. Orphan is the new black.]
Melissa starts crying, and Carol hugs her. Then they hear a whine from Mrs McCormick’s monitor. Carol and a bunch of doctors hurry into the room, and after a few minutes of frantic action, the doctors slowly emerge from the room, shaking their heads.
RIP Mrs McCormick. See you in book #86: It Can’t Happen Here.
Mr Clark drives them home, and Melissa worries about everything. She and Andy quickly stopped their tears. Neither of them talk, and Mr Clark just keeps saying how sorry he is. They pass her mom’s work and Melissa wonders how she goes about calling mom’s boss. [Wing: Ooof. This is actually far harder than you’d expect. Even Ostrich struggled when he had to call his brother’s place of work, and Ostrich is basically an AI.]
Mr Clark asks if there’s anyone he can contact for them – the hospital told him that Mrs McCormick didn’t ask them to contact Mr McCormick when she was admitted. Guess data protection still isn’t a thing in Sweet Valley. Andy says he’ll deal with it – his dad is out of town on business, but he’ll be back tonight.
Mr Clark says they can call him if they need him, then leaves them at home. [Raven: … The teachers at this FUCKING school. I’m beginning to think the best one there is actually Mr Nydick, and he legally has to remain over 100 yards away from his pupils at all times.] Melissa initially doesn’t want to go in because it’ll be the first time without her mother, but Andy coaxes her in. She asks him why he lied about their dad, and Andy says that they’d be split up by social services if someone found out they didn’t have an adult present (Andy is only seventeen). He reassures her that he’ll take care of her, and she wonders who will take care of him.
The next morning, they’re awoken by Mrs Franco, the next door neighbour, dropping by with cookies. She didn’t know Mrs McCormick died, she was just being nice. Andy breaks it to her and Mrs Franco is upset, she hadn’t known her long, but they were close.
At this moment, a social worker rocks up. She’s call Sarah Scott and is from Child Protection Services. Someone at Sweet Valley Hospital (Carol, the nurse) reported that the kids might not have an adult. Two things: 1) Pretty sure it’s called Fowler Memorial Hospital in SVH; 2) is this Sweet Valley’s first need for CPS? After all, every other family has two parents (except for the Rizzos and the Thomases, but they will resolve themselves eventually). No wonder there was such a quick turnaround from report to visit, I bet Sarah Scott’s been sat in her office since the dawn of time, gathering dust, waiting for a broken home in the suburban perfection of Sweet Valley.
Andy says they’re perfectly fine, their dad is travelling overseas and will be back soon. Mrs Franco says that their parents are separated – yeah, no, Mrs Franco, separation doesn’t mean zero contact. It did in this particular case, but that’s not the point. Andy counters that they need to contact him, and he’ll come back. That was the agreement they all set up, just in case.
For a second, Melissa gets excited, thinking this is actually true. Then she crashes down when she realises that Andy is lying to get rid of the social worker. Andy says he’ll take care of Melissa until their father gets back, and Sarah says that no, he’s a minor, but don’t worry, they have some lovely foster homes. The kids have no choice. Mrs Franco says it’s ok, the kids can stay with them until dad arrives – they’re going on a trip at the end of the week, but he should be back before then. That’s fine, just let me know when dad arrives.
I’m not going to pick that apart too badly, because if social services in the USA is as underfunded and overworked as it is in the UK, I could see someone shrugging off paperwork if they had the chance. Still, it does seem a bit too easy.
Melissa packs a lot of stuff, and Andy asks her why, they’re only going next door, they can come back for whatever they need. Melissa says she doesn’t want to come back to the house, it doesn’t feel like theirs without mom. She asks what they’re going to do when dad does not come back, and Andy says he’ll think of something.
As they’re leaving, Saint Elizabeth rocks up. Apparently Mr Davis announced the death to class, and Elizabeth has come over to give her condolences. She asks if they’re going away, and Melissa spins the lie that their dad is coming home soon. She very much appreciates that Elizabeth came over. God she’s going to feel dumped when Elizabeth moves on to her next BFF.
Over with the Wakefields, Jessica and Steven are still fighting over the phone. I know it was probably chosen as a b-plot to give a break from the drama of the McCormicks but it fucking reeks of #FirstWorldProblems, so I’m not even going to mention it in the rest of my recap, other than to complain that it’s wasting valuable page space.
We skip to after the funeral, and only the Francos and Mrs McCormick’s boss were at the funeral, aside from Melissa and Andy. [Raven: Two days after death? That’s quick, surely?] [Dove: Quick, but not impossible. You’re right, usually there’s a bigger delay between death and funeral, but it can be done. Basically, over here, you need either one or two doctors to certify death (one for burial, two for cremation), and then everything else is logistics: can you get the body to the funeral director in time, is the church/cemetary/crematorium/minister of your choice available, etc.] [Wing: I actually went back to check dates, and it looks like my mom would have had her funeral within two days but for it being a weekend, which slowed things down quite a bit. (She died late Friday night.)] Everyone’s in black or navy blue, except Melissa, who’s wearing a flowery dress her mother made for her. Same here. For some reason I was put in a black and pink party dress for my dad’s funeral. And everyone kept shouting at me because I kept cuddling my cat and getting cat hair all over the black velvet bits. Also, my aunt gave me a My Little Pony at the get-together afterwards. I still have that pony.
[Wing: I bought a new outfit, because for the first time in the many long years she was sick, when I was called home because she’d been hospitalised, I did not take a funeral outfit. The one time in like a decade that I wasn’t prepared was, of course, the time I needed to be prepared. (I was called home multiple times over the years, including one time when I was literally in the middle of a grad school final.) The shirt I bought remains one of my favourite shirts to wear. I got very, very lucky that there was still a plus size clothing store in the small town where I grew up; there isn’t one now, and I’d be shit out of luck for last minute clothes.]
The Francos ask about Mr McCormick, and Andy and Melissa accidentally contradict each other – Andy says he’s in sales, while Melissa says he’s a musician, so they have to meld the lie. Likewise when Mrs Franco asks where their dad is, they say London and Vienna. Andy thanks Mrs Franco for helping arrange the funeral (Mrs McCormick’s insurance covered the cost), and that he should go back to their house to call dad again. He takes Melissa with him, and insists she comes in the house, because they need to talk. So far she’s been avoiding going in.
Andy has a plan. He knows someone called Sam, who was thrown off the team for fighting. He’s willing to call up and pretend to be dad for the bargain price of $50. I have no idea why Andy is confiding his very real fears of being sent to foster care with someone as heartless as this. He doesn’t even mention whether Sam has a mature/deep voice. Doesn’t Andy have any friends he trusts? This is a very odd offer.
Anyway, once Melissa gets over the shock of the cost, she agrees it’s worth it to stay together. Andy’s been looking at their finances and thinks they’ll be ok with the money in the checking account and cash around the house. Uh-huh. I am sceptical, because Mrs McCormick worked in a grocery store – retail is a hard job that doesn’t pay as well as it should, also, she’s been in hospital, so there’s bills there, also, I doubt as a single mother working a retail job, she managed to buy her house outright. I bet, objectively, they’ve got less than a month’s worth of money.
Over with Elizabeth, she speaks to Melissa briefly on the phone and when she’s finished she wells up with tears at the thought of losing her own mother. FUCK. OFF. ELIZABETH. People like you are the reason I kept lying. My kid-self cannot deal with your bullshit “oh, what if…” in the face my “actually it happened”. Get fucked.
Jessica asks why she’s so upset, and then shakes it off when she realises that it’s just the concept of dead parents. From the girl who made the whole school freak the fuck out because her mom got mono. [Wing: Character growth or lack of continuity?] She asks Elizabeth to help hang signs marking the area as a Steven-free zone. Elizabeth tells her to get fucked.
I literally do not care about the Wakefields. I would actually take Jessica’s searing indifference to Elizabeth’s empathetic crying jag, but honestly, I’d rather rip out all the Wakefield pages of this book and just read about Melissa and Andy. [Raven: And I don’t really care about Melissa or Andy either. So it’s just empty pages for me.] [Dove: Fair. I think I only care (moderately so) because I like a later version of Melissa.]
The next day, Mrs Franco is packing for their trip, and she takes Melissa aside to say that she can’t in good conscience leave the kids without an adult, so she’ll need to call social services. Thankfully, Sam calls at this moment. He manages to generate some static to make it sound like he’s calling long-distance. Mrs Franco says that she and her husband are leaving for their trip on Monday afternoon, and “Dad” says he’ll be back Monday evening. Mrs Franco is now relieved that the kids won’t be alone. She then hands the phone over to her Melissa so she can say hi to “Dad”.
“Hey there, cutie-pie,” came a throaty voice on the other end. “How about a kiss for your old dad?”
Andy then takes the phone and asks if Mrs Franco bought it, and Melissa answers in a way that sounds like she’s talking to her dad. He hangs up and she says “I love you too, Dad.” Poor kid.
When the Francos leave the next day, the kids head back to their house, and Andy calls a family meeting. Can you really have a meeting with only two people? Not objecting to the concept, it’s actually a pretty mature thing to do, just the wording.
Andy’s been going through the bills, and mom’s insurance will take care of the hospital bills, and she does own the house outright, she got an inheritance to pay it off. Well, gosh, aren’t these kids just fortunate considering the situation? However, all the utility bills are overdue. God, Sweet Valley is quick to switch to overdue, Mrs McCormick’s only been dead a few days. Andy says he’ll take care of the bills – uh, can anyone sign a cheque? Because you guys are about ten years too early before money transfers and direct debits [Wing: Depends on how good he is at signing her name, though it’s also possible that she’s been sick in various degrees for so long that her signature changes depending on her health.] – and it’s time they went back to school. He says she can count on him, he’ll help her with homework, and make sure she takes her vitamins, and she pulls herself together and shoots back that she’ll make sure he washes behind his ears.
That night, Melissa can’t sleep and she beats herself up because her mom said she and Andy couldn’t get jobs to help out. She thinks they – she in particular – should have gotten jobs anyway and taken the pressure off mom. Sweetie, I have no idea what job you could take aged twelve that would significantly assist in paying bills, aside from, like, cooking meth or whatever, but even then, where are you going to find people who take meth? Big Mesa? Enid Rollins hasn’t moved here yet.
She eventually gets up and sleeps in her mom’s bed.
When Melissa gets to school the next day, she’s beset by people offering their condolences. She’s pleased to see Team Boring, who are the only people who have treated her normally all day. I feel for Melissa here. It’s a fine line. As an outsider, you feel that you have to express your condolences otherwise you’re an asshole, as the person who’s constantly hearing “I’m so sorry about…” it just makes you want to lock yourself in a quiet room until people have stopped being sorry about things.
Elizabeth invites her over to her house, along with Amy after school. This is great for Melissa, because Andy has basketball practice and she doesn’t like being in the house alone.
They talk about school and not death on the way home, which makes a nice change. Then Jessica and Lila walk into the house. Jessica avoided Melissa all day, so it makes the atmosphere awkward. Lila breaks the silence by asking Melissa to talk with her privately. And I’m just going to quote this verbatim, because, as you will know if you’ve read The Hunger Games, I am deeply invested in any interaction between Melissa and Lila.
Melissa walked over to Lila, who pulled her aside.
“Look, Melissa,” Lila said, “I know we’re not exactly friends or anything, but…” She ran her fingers through her thick brown hair. “Well, I wanted to tell you I was sorry about… you know.”
Melissa almost smiled, in spite of herself. She knew Lila Fowler was rarely tongue-tied.
“See,” Lila continued, lowering her voice, “I don’t exactly have a mom, either. I mean, I do, but she left my dad when I was really young. So in a way, I think I know how you must be feeling. Sort of.” She sighed. “Life can really be crummy sometimes, you know?”
Melissa nodded. “I know.”
Lila glanced over at Jessica, who was sitting by the edge of the pool, dangling her feet in the water. “If you ever need to talk or anything,” Lila said, nearly whispering, “we could.” She paused. “Not—you know—in school or anything.”
For Lila, this is a fucking revelation. She’s still fabulously Lila about it, but admitting that she has emotions regarding her mother… is this actually the first time she’s done this? [Raven: That last line though. GOLDEN.] [Wing: LILA FUCKING FOWLER, Y’ALL. She is glorious.]
And Melissa appreciates the offer for what it is. I’m seeing a glimpse of my favourite… I wouldn’t say I ship it, I just really love these two when they share a page. When Melissa re-joins Team Boring, she explains:
Melissa smiled. “They want me to join the Unicorns,” she said with a long-suffering sigh, “but I told Lila they’d have to work on their wardrobes before I’d consider joining. I absolutely despise purple.”
Hello, my sassy little friend. This is a Melissa that I love. I know it wouldn’t be appropriate for her to sass all the way through such an emotional book, but it’s nice to see hints of it. [Wing: I want to see Melissa and Brooke hang out.]
Jessica says there’s a three day weekend coming up soon because the schools have all-day meetings. They should have a pool party. I don’t know why she needs three days to throw a single pool party, unless it’s a marathon party, but sure. Let’s have a pool party.
Then Steven arrives with his BFF, Joe Howell. Joe immediately notices Melissa and asks Elizabeth who her friend is.
Melissa blushes at the attention, then feels guilty – her mother just died, crushes and boys don’t matter. The boys ask if she’s related to Andy, and gush over his basketball prowess.
Jessica then blurts out her idea to have a pool party, and Steven says no, he and Joe are having a major pool party. Wasn’t this the plot of The Big Party Weekend. Just die already. Oh, wait, Jessica actually points out that they should stay away from major parties because of that party. Jessica storms off with Lila in tow.
Elizabeth then says that Jessica and Steven are going through a fighty phase (probably because Steven’s dating someone who isn’t Jessica), but he’d do anything for them. Yeah, no, we haven’t seen evidence of that since The Older Boy. Steven has been an asshat for about 42 books by now. Talk turns to Elizabeth wanting to meet Mr McCormick for her project. Melissa excuses herself to call home. Andy picks up the phone and says he was worried – he just got home and she wasn’t there. He says they should make a system so they know where each other are, and she should be home by six for dinner.
As she hangs up, Ned walks in – guess lawyering in Sweet Valley is really easy if you can be home by 4pm every day, and still make enough money to buy an attractive split-level house with a pool on Calico Drive. He introduces himself to Melissa, and then Jessica and Steven burst in, fighting over who gets to have a pool party. Ned peaces out by saying they need to work on a compromise otherwise no pool party at all. Melissa wonders when she and Andy will get back to that kind of pointless argument. I’m guessing by the end of this book.
A few days later, Melissa gets home, and checks the schedule. She and Andy have mapped their days so they know where each other are at all times. Andy should be at practice, but he’s home. He’s quit the basketball team. Melissa asks if it’s anything to do with the bills, and Andy beats himself up over the fact that he didn’t get a job earlier. Melissa says she’s been thinking the same thing about herself – why didn’t she help out more?
Andy says he’s got a job at the supermarket, and he can take home all the fruit and veg he can eat. Yeah, no, that’s not how things work. Andy then kicks into dadmode, asking about a science quiz, saying he’ll help with her homework and saying he might limit her TV time. Melissa nearly snaps at him that he’s not her father, then says she’ll make dinner instead.
Over in the Wakefield compound, Elizabeth is holding a Sixers meeting, with Amy, Julie and Sophia. Talk turns to the McCormicks when Steven, who is there also, says that Andy quit the basketball team. Elizabeth runs out of the meeting to call Melissa and invite her over. Melissa says no, she’s making dinner. Jessica then walks in and she and Steven immediately dissolve into hair-pulling and name-calling. That has to be the most pointless chapter ever.
Over with Melissa, the casserole she’s making smells great. She lies down on the couch, sleepy because she’s not sleeping at night, and obviously falls asleep, only for the oven to catch fire. [Wing: Amy? Is that you?]
She wakes up and realises what’s going on. She knows her fire safety and even has a fire extinguisher, so is able to stop the fire. But dinner is dead. And the book doesn’t make a comment either way, but we all know that oven is going to be a bitch to clean.
Actually, it turns out it’s not completely Melissa’s fault, she did set a timer. It’s just she also set the oven to broil instead of bake.
Andy comes home and tries to make light of the situation, and then suggests they get takeout pizza, even though they can’t really afford it. He inspects the damage and says the oven is repairable, but they need a repair man, which will again cost money. Melissa firmly states that she’s getting a job, and Andy can’t argue, as they need every penny they can get.
The next day at school she manages to joke about it with Elizabeth, and finds herself well-prepped for all of Elizabeth’s questions for the families project – remember that? Yeah, that’s still a thing. Then they bond because Melissa wants to be a mystery writer, and they both love Amanda Howard. Does anyone not love Amanda Howard in this universe?
Wait it says that “She’d had a story ready for every question Elizabeth asked about her family” but then she freaks out when Elizabeth asks about her father and she has nothing to say. So… Melissa had prepped herself with lies about existing family members, but not come up with a cover story about her dad? Or did the ghostie just forget to delete the first sentence?
Melissa blurts out a lie about her dad that contradicts something she said only seconds ago. When Elizabeth calls her on it, she says she has other homework to do, and excuses herself.
By next Monday, Melissa has started a paper round and she gets home from it utterly exhausted. She’s ready to pass out on the sofa when Elizabeth knocks on the door, apparently dropping off an Amanda Howard mystery, but actually she’s here because gosh dang it she’s Elizabeth Wakefield, she just knows when emotional shit is going down.
Elizabeth spots Melissa’s paper route bag and asks about it. Melissa lets it slip that the bills are piling up. Elizabeth’s angst-spotting antenna goes up. THIS IS WHAT SHE CAME FOR, BITCHES. She puts on her most earnest face, gets her hands limbered up for all the shoulder patting, and asks Melissa if she wants to talk.
Melissa admits that she’s been lying, and Saint Elizabeth guesses immediately that it’s about her dad, and Melissa explains the situation. Elizabeth promises she won’t tell, and says that if anyone tried to separate her from Jessica, she’d do everything in her power to stay with her. Guess she’s not that fussed about Steven. Or her parents.
Back at home, Jessica is dividing up the living room with masking tape, and I would skip right past it except Jessica says:
Jessica let out an exasperated sigh. “You mean to tell me that Steven doesn’t get on your nerves? I guess I’m just not as tolerant as you, Saint Elizabeth.”
Even Jessica calls her Saint Elizabeth! Although I really just want to rip Jessica and Steven’s faces off throughout this entire book.
After school the next day, Elizabeth is waiting for Melissa when she gets home from her paper route. Elizabeth offers to help Melissa make dinner, and admits that she’s not just being a saint, she also needs to get away from Steven and Jessica’s infuriating feud. She offers to help Melissa clean before dinner, and when they get to Melissa’s mom’s room, Melissa pauses. She hasn’t had the courage to go back in there since the first night, but manages to with Elizabeth beside her.
And then we hit something I fucking loathe in dead parent books:
The girls worked silently for a few minutes. As Elizabeth folded some clothes that were lying on a chair, she pointed to a small framed photo on Mrs. McCormick’s dresser. “Is that your mom?” she asked softly.
Melissa nodded. “And my dad. Right after they got married. They were crazy about each other then.”
“She was really beautiful,” Elizabeth said, examining the photo more carefully. “You look like her.”
Dead parent is always beautiful. Dead parent always looks like the kid they left behind. [Raven: How did you feel about this aspect of the Harry Potter books, then?] [Dove: It was handled differently, and the book was a different genre (although constantly banging on about his eye colour was a tad repetitive). I’m thinking more of things like Now and Then or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (movie), where one of the BFFs comments on the beauty of the dead parent and everyone soulfully agrees. Sisterhood is even worse, because then all the kids are like, “OMG, your dead mum would totes love this slumber party!” *blinks* If you’re having slumber parties with your BFF’s parent… something is off.]
Although a friend once commented, “Wow. You have totally got your dad’s wonky eyes.” I feel that the next podcast will be slow on discussion as Raven and Wing eyeball my wonky eyes with newfound interest.
As Melissa is tidying up, she finds a pile of envelopes tied together with a red ribbon – who the hell has time to tie post together with ribbons? They are from J McCormick, and Melissa is shocked that he kept writing, she didn’t know about anything beyond the first few letters.
Elizabeth asks why the folks split up, and Melissa explains that daddy wanted to be a famous musician and so took crappy jobs so he was free to play in the clubs at night. (Uh, I have a non-crappy job and I’m free at 5:01pm.) [Wing: Yes, but AMURICA OVERTIME WORK UNTIL YOU DROP NO WORKER HAS TIME FOR HOBBIES YOUR JOB IS WHO YOU ARE.] Elizabeth thinks that romantic. The fights hit when mom wanted him to settle down and get a real job. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. If you have two kids and you live in the USA, a country that resolutely refuses to help its people, getting a regular job with a fairly decent wage is probably not a bad idea, especially if your wife has a heart condition. [Wing: Yeah, about that. How the fuck does she have good enough insurance that it pays for everything it pays for when she works in retail?] [Dove: That thought crossed my mind too, but I figured you’d know better than me whether this was likely.]
Melissa wants to know if the letters say anything about her and Andy, and Elizabeth reassures her that her mom would understand Melissa’s curiosity.
Melissa read the letter silently, her eyes scan-fling the lines for her name or Andy’s. Near the bottom of the page, she found them. Please, Jan, the letter said, please consider letting us try to make things work one last time. Don’t we owe it to the kids? There aren’t any words to tell you how much I miss Melissa and Andy.
Sure there aren’t any words. And you know what else there isn’t? EVIDENCE. If you love those kids, call them on their birthdays, send them letters, send them postcards, buy them snow globes and tacky fridge magnets and post them out. Don’t just add them as a postscript to a crawling letter to your soon-to-be-ex-wife.
He also sent money, which Mrs M sent back. The girls read every letter, and they all say the same thing.
Elizabeth says they should write to him and tell him what happened so he can come home. Melissa says 1) where? The letters are postmarked from all over the country; and 2) no, it would crush her if he didn’t reply. She feels much better just knowing he cared.
Uh, Melissa, if he cares, he should respond.
After Elizabeth goes home, Melissa makes tuna casserole (gosh this family loves casserole) for Andy and tells him that Elizabeth knows everything, and they found the letters in their mom’s room. She brings up their father, and Andy very quickly no-sells this idea.
Andy pushed back his chair and stood. “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘actions speak louder than words’? Well, Dad was great with words, Melissa. He loved to make promises. He just wasn’t so hot on the follow-through.”
The next day, when Melissa gets home from her paper round, Sam – the dude who pretended to be their dad on the phone – is there with Andy. Andy had a run-in with Principal Hollingsworth (yeah, no, it’s Chrome Dome Cooper, isn’t it? Hollingsworth is the vice principal) for skipping school and she wants to speak to his father, so Sam’s filling in again.
Sam takes the call and assures the principal that he’ll have stern words with his son. He also thinks it’s hysterical he’s on first-name terms with the principal (Wendy, for those that are interested). Melissa does not get a good vibe from Sam and doesn’t think she can trust him.
Sam leaves, not before telling Andy that he owes him for this little stunt.
That Friday, Melissa makes chicken casserole – that’s literally the only dish this family will eat – for Andy, but he bypasses dinner and goes straight to his room to… well, Melissa finds him crying. He says he’s tired and overwhelmed, but she presses him on it, and he admits that Sam wants him to do something illegal (unspecified), and if he doesn’t, Sam will call social services. He says he’ll find a way around it. Also, he read the letters and the situation may have been more complicated than he first thought.
I’m still going with: Dad better have a really good reason for never contacting his kids directly – even just a postcard, which mom could check for content before passing on (if there was a genuine reason he shouldn’t be in unsupervised contact with them, which there isn’t, because we all know where this story is going).
At school, Melissa wants to cry in the loos after class because she’s so worried, but Saint Wakefield is in stalk mode and follows her and gets the truth out of her. She says that it’s time they told an adult what’s going on – she even offers the gin-soaked Alice and the always-absent Ned as suitable adults to talk to. Melissa says no.
I’m actually conflicted on this. Usually in these stories, I’m bouncing up and down screaming “TELL AN ADULT”, but in this case I’m honestly not sure I would tell an adult either. I know it’s the right thing to do, I just don’t have a whole lot of faith in the adults of Sweet Valley or the foster system in general. I don’t have any hands-on experience with being fostered, but it was a constant threat my mother used to throw at me. “Oh, you think I’m the worst mother in the world! You don’t love me!” *picks up phone* “I’ll just call social services and you can get a new mother that you actually love!”
[Wing: Foster families can be great. They can also be horrific. I feel for their fear over it.]
At the Wakefield compound, Elizabeth asks Jessica hypothetically what she would do if she knew a secret but telling it might help the person. Jessica says she’d probably tell, since it would help. Then adds that she’d probably tell the secret anyway. Holy god that’s some self-awareness we’ve had from the Unicorns in this book. Also, the Steven/Jessica feud still rages. And I still don’t care.
It’s Friday again, god this book is covering a lot of weeks, which means Ms Arnette’s project has been dragging on forever. Melissa is washing up and worrying. They had a call from the electric company to say that they’re going to be cut off if they don’t pay up by next Friday. I suppose that’s why this book is moving through so much time, they need to get the kids really far into debt to raise the stakes.
As she looks out of the window, she sees someone breaking into the Francos’ house next door. She calls the police, who rock up and arrest the criminals. Can anyone guess who’s involved? Yep, it’s Andy. [Raven: And, I’m presuming, Tony Rizzo.]
Over with the Wakefields, the Steven/Jessica feud still rages, and Elizabeth tells them both to fuck off so she can speak to the parents alone. Just as she’s about to spill the beans, the phone rings and it’s Melissa to tell her all about the burglary next door. Melissa feels that it’s all her fault, Elizabeth feels it’s all her fault for not telling an adult sooner. I don’t really know who to blame, but I’m going with Sam, for being a dick. Elizabeth remembers that Ned is a lawyer and that his area of expertise for this particular book is criminal incidents, so sends him over to deal with things.
Then a lot of stuff happens off screen. Ned posts bail for Andy; the Wakefields are turned down because the judge (there’s a judge at silly o’clock on a Friday night?) refused to place them anywhere but a state-certified foster home – to be honest, that’s reasonable, given that the Francos offered to care for them, and the kids slipped through the net. And they’re going to be separated.
At this point, Steven and Jessica realise their issues are #FirstWorldProblems and decide to stop being dicks… there’s four pages left in this book, and I bet it won’t last past the end, so… awesome?
Elizabeth feels terrible about how things turned out, but then she has a “wonderful, crazy, impossible idea”. Or, if you’re us and you know how obsessed Elizabeth is with blood relations being on good terms, a really fucking obvious idea.
A week later, Melissa and Andy get to spend a few minutes together at their house while picking up their things. For some reason they’ve not been allowed to see each other. That makes no sense, their schools are like three seconds apart. Why are they being separated? I know the foster system can be broken, but this is Sweet Valley, the land of the fucking privileged, the place where shit works like it’s supposed to. And what’s supposed to happen is that the foster kid gets acclimatised with as much support as they need. Not a solid ruling that they can’t see their only family because reasons – and it’s not as if they should be miles apart. If they’re going to school, they should be able to meet up afterwards, since everybody in Sweet Valley walks everywhere.
They have a few words before Melissa gets thunderstruck by the arrival of…
And we cut to a pool party at the Wakefield Compound, where Melissa can’t stop gushing over how awesome Elizabeth is for writing to her dad. And then Mr McCormick breaks out his guitar and dedicates his song not to his kids that he’s been estranged from for years, but to SAINT FUCKING WAKEFIELD. FUCK OFF WITH YOUR WAKEFIELDS ALWAYS WIN. LET MELISSA AND ANDY HAVE A FUCKING SONG, YOU ATTENTION-SEEKING FUCKSTAIN. [Raven: Yup. Complete bollocks. “This song is available on CD and cassette, available in the foyer. Tell your friends!” … Prick.]
Then we have a lead-in to the next book as they talk about the student teacher who’ll be taking a module of Ms Arnette’s class. (Which gives us one of the best covers ever: American Gothic, Wakefield style.)
Yeah, so Mr McCormick’s never going to explain why he didn’t contact his kids then?
Ok. That’s healthy.
It’s not the book’s fault I’ve got so much bias against dead parent books, so I’ll try to be fair about this. I liked Melissa and Andy, and I liked that it actually made things difficult for them. But I hated the last-minute parent whose absence was never explained side of things. Throughout the book Elizabeth was mostly tolerable – if I didn’t hate her with the fire of a thousand suns, I’d have probably found her nice or something. But I do hate her, and the fact that daddy dearest dedicated his song to her instead of the kids he professes to love makes me worry. Andy said actions speak louder than words, and the actions are: absent; back; ignoring his kids to favour someone else’s.
Loved Lila in the couple of paragraphs she was present. It was nice to give Lila a bit of depth. If you listen to the podcast, you’ll know that we give Lila more wiggle-room than anyone else with her bullshit, so it’s nice to be rewarded with actual proof that she really is fucked up about her home life.
Steven and Jessica? Just fucking die. I hate you both.
[Raven: Didn’t care. About anyone. Not enough Unicorns, terrible Wakefields, too much crap about people I have no interest in. Saddest part was when the Franco’s roses died. All very Serious Business. Bring me Wacky Hi-Jinks, damnit!]
[Wing: Really like Melissa and am glad Dove spoiled it so I know we’re getting more of her later. Andy was in a shitty place; even if he had been eighteen and able to keep her, what a terrible burden on him and heartbreaking for both of them. And fuck out of here with the whole dad thing. What the ever-loving-fuck was that lack of closer? Learn to pace your writing better, ghost writers, goddamn.]