The Unicorn Club #9: Ellen’s Family Secret

The Unicorn Club 9: Ellen's Family Secret
The Unicorn Club 9: Ellen’s Family Secret

Title: Ellen’s Family Secret

Tagline: Don’t tell the Unicorns

The Unicorn Club #09 Ellen’s Family Secret – American Cover (from Liz)

Summary: I’ve got a horrible secret and no-one—especially the Unicorns—must find out about it. See, my parents won’t stop fighting. Every time they’re in the same room together, there’s a big explosion. And last night they gave me the big news: they’re getting a divorce.

There has to be some way to get them back together—and I have to do it fast, before the Unicorns find out what’s going on. Someone with problems like mine just isn’t Unicorn material.

How can I convince my parents they’re meant for each other, before I lose my family and get kicked out of the Unicorn Club?

Ellen Riteman

Initial Thoughts:

I have warring thoughts: 1) YAY! AN ELLEN BOOK! I LOVE HER SO MUCH! and 2) Oh god, how will the ghostie fuck it up this time?

This series started out strongly (though there were continuity issues), but over the past few books it’s dissolved into bitchy back-and-forths between Team Good and Team Satan. Also, Ellen can quite often be a shrill, screaming car-wreck of toxicity in the hands of the wrong person. (Basically, anyone but me and/or Team Grapplegate.)

So this leads me to believe this could be the final nail in the coffin, where they destroy my favourite character and any goodwill I had left over.

Tread carefully, ghostie. You’re on thin ice.

[Raven: I hope we get Best Ellen and not Usual Ellen.]

[Wing: Why is divorce this horrifying thing that will get her kicked out of the Unicorns? I guess because it’s too imperfect in Sweet Valley, but still.]


We open with Ellen noting that some people are born to lead, e.g. Lila or Jessica. And then we get this sentence.

Oh, and then there’s me. Ellen Riteman. What are my virtues? If you’ve read about me before, do me a favor and think about it for a second. OK. Time’s up.

Ok, Ellen’s funny. She has some really awesome lines. The one that cemented it for me was in The Unicorns Go Hawaiian when Lila was talking about her dad’s new girlfriend, Bambi, Ellen told everyone that she meant “the baby deer. You know, Thumper’s friend.” Fucking classic.

Also, sometimes Ellen’s thought patterns are unique, and give us some interesting moments. For example, when she was besotted with Amy, who saved her life, she didn’t care that Amy was a non-Unicorn. She just dove into her new BFF status, and basically told the Unicorns to suck it if they didn’t approve. (Yeah, the next book torpedoed that ship, but let’s not dwell, ok?)

And generally, when in the hands of a good writer, she can be very sweet in her confusion. For example, when Mandy quit the Unicorns/Angels/maybe both, Ellen voiced her confusion, which was both funny and helpful, since even Elizabeth later admitted she was just as clueless about where Mandy stood. (She stood in Switzerland, guys, covered in beige paint. Even when making decisions, she still failed to make a decision.)

Also, I liked parts of The Gossip War, when Ellen absolutely knows she’s not as smart or detail-oriented as some of her friends and takes notes during the conversations. Since I do this at work to combat my anxiety, I like a pro-active plan to work around short-comings.

So yeah, Ellen’s awesome.

[Raven: As Dove is Ellen’s perennial cheerleader, I thought it best to leave this to her. As usual, she knocked it out of the park.]

Anyway, let’s get back to it. Ellen thinks there’s nothing special about her. Her hair is mousy, she doesn’t have a magic ability with the kids at the daycare centre like the others, and sure, she had a role in the play recently, but she had a hard time memorising her lines. Despite being a Unicorn, which should mean she’s special, she’s not. And if you managed to come up with something special about her, please tell her.

Hon, you and Lila are the best thing in this series. This site is a fucking love letter to the pair of you.

(I really wish I could show a fictional character my website and let her know that she’s amazing.)

Ellen has just turned thirteen, which means she’s still young and has time to find her special talent. Oh, this book is going to be like the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ arc over the years of Friendship is Magic? Cool. [Raven: What would Ellen’s Cutie Mark be?] [Dove: Maybe a heart candy (because she’s a “sweetheart”?), but with some nice glitter or maybe a jewel or 3D detail to make it special.]

All of this self-doubt is leading up to the opening day of Sweet Valley Ice Skating rink (good god, that business name really couldn’t be any less imaginative, could it?). Ellen was given “an absolutely gorgeous lavender skating outfit for my birthday” and she thinks this will be the thing to make her stand out. Her friends are all so wonderful, and Ellen is deeply aware of the dim things she says, but only after they’re out of her mouth – urgh, same, hon. I blurted something really stupid on one of my first team calls in my new job this week. I feel you. The Unicorns aren’t as forgiving as my colleagues, and make jabs about what an airhead or space cadet she is. Constantly. And even though she doesn’t say anything about it, it hurts.

(Ok, so far I’m cautiously approving of this ghostie.)

Ellen has kept her beautiful skating outfit secret, so she can surprise the Unicorns.

“Ellen. Wow. I mean, that’s… that’s an excellent outfit,” Lila said. She sounded almost alarmed.

She sounded almost alarmed. Go Ellen! Ellen accepts the compliments from Lila and Jessica modestly, then shows off her skates which have unicorn shoelaces. Kimberly brings her down to earth with a curt “Let’s not get too full of ourselves or anything.” Wow. And I thought I couldn’t hate her any more than I already did.

However, this nasty comment makes me love what Jessica replies with:

“Let’s not get too jealous because Ellen has the coolest skating outfit,” Jessica retorted.

Ok, so far we have well-written Ellen and a protective Jessica… dare I hope for a good book? I know I’m only on the first scene, but this is hopeful, right? [Raven: Agreed!]

The Unicorns get on the ice and Ellen spots Rick Hunter and Peter Jeffries, which is still a weird combo of people, and Eight Times Eight (remember them? They kind of went nowhere, right? [Future Dove: See my final thoughts for notes on this]), the boys give her approving looks, and Eight Times Eight, in classic Sweet Valley style, are validated Ellen’s look by sending over hateful and jealous looks.

As I took my first strides, I instantly felt on top of the world. Well, at least on top of Sweet Valley. (Food for thought: Can you be on top of a valley?)

This ghostie is bringing the awesome Ellen. And I will quote it.

Other things I will quote? This utterly out of character and Mary Sue exchange:

“Hey, Jessica,” I heard Rick shout, “want to be my partner for the couples skate?”

“What about me?” Peter protested, whacking Rick’s shoulder.

Jessica tilted her head, thinking.

“How ‘bout both of us?” Rick suggested.

“I don’t know, guys,” she said, tossing her hair flirtatiously, “I’ll think about it.”

She turned around and skated off, leaving Peter and Rick to admire her.

“She is so awesome,” Rick said dreamily.

  • Rick and Jessica have dated before. It fizzled. (Which I’m still bitter about, because he seemed the one dude who could hold her attention).
  • Rick dropped Mary like a rock for Amanda in the Eight Times Eights. He is an asshole. Why have we forgiven him? Or do we now hate Mary so much that we’re pro-asshole?
  • Which thirteen year old boy says anything “dreamily” outside of wish-fulfilment scenes in books written for girls? I mean, Sweet Valley is such a toxically gendered place, I’m genuinely surprised that Bruce Patman didn’t rock up and punch him until he “acted like a man” or something.

Ellen skates fast and Kimberly bitches at her again. Just die. Nobody likes you. Rick makes a comment about her speed, which makes her feel like she can take on the world. Apparently Jessica and Lila can do a jumping spinny move (not perfectly, they both have flaws), but today is the day that Ellen not only tries that move, but nails it and everyone will be amazed that she’s an ice skating prodigy.

Obviously, it does not go well. She lands on her ass and goes spinning across the ice. Ellen is mortified, and once her friends have ascertained that she’s not injured, they start laughing at her. The boys make a snarky comment about the landing, and then the Unicorns start rehashing some of Ellen’s other most mortifying moments. [Raven: Poor Ellen! I really feel for her throughout this book.]

Damn, this is harsh. I totally believe this is how they function too.

“I guess a happening outfit can’t exactly cover for the fact that you’re a complete klutz.” Kimberly giggled as she reached for the railing.

“They even flub up in the Olympics sometimes,” I pointed out weakly as I moved over to the edge.

“Not on easy jumps like that.” Lila put her hands on her hips. “Your feet crossed at the totally wrong place. Maybe you need private lessons.”

“Plus, you need to become more graceful before you can pull off a move like that,” Jessica rattled on. “You might need to take ballet lessons.”

“But grace isn’t something you can learn,” Kimberly piped in. “Either you’ve got it or you don’t.”

At this point, Ellen starts to miss the Angels, who wouldn’t have been so bitchy about the whole thing.

Jessica then does a perfect jump twirly thing and the boys yell “Ten! Ten!” to her, which is just insufferable. When she returns, drowning in flowers and adoration from the entire universe, she notices a rip in Ellen’s costume. Kimberly and Lila immediately say that she’s ruined the greatest skating outfit of all time.

And on top of the loathing her friends are heaping on her, she realises that her parents will not be happy that they spent money on an expensive outfit only for her to rip it immediately. She can’t afford to replace it. So she blurts out that she’s a great seamstress, just like Betty Crocker, which elicits more giggles. And then the Unicorns again dogpile her, saying that while it was hilarious watching her fall over, it was a bit embarrassing that the Eight Times Eights saw.

On Monday, Ellen dreads going to school, because she imagines that by the time she gets there, everyone (including the faculty) will know that she fell over at the rink. And to be honest, there is real precedent for vapid nonsense sweeping through the school, so I get it.

She sees Mandy first, who doesn’t mention her falling over, so she assumes Mandy is being nice, because Mandy is nice. Next she sees Randy and nearly bites his head off when all he wanted to do was ask if she had a nice weekend. [Raven: I liked this section. Poor Ellen’s worry about her fall being on everyone’s radar is painfully believable.]

She meets up with the Unicorns who ask if she’s ready for the meeting. Since she was expecting more humiliation from them, this question throws her, so they mock her idiocy. She does actually know that she’s supposed to be hosting the next meeting that afternoon, she just wasn’t expecting the question.

Which now makes me wonder, is Ellen actually daffy, or is she just a bundle of nerves from all the endless mockery?

[Wing: Anxiety is hell, poor girl.]

Ellen is ready for the meeting, her mom has made tasty munchies, her brother is playing at someone else’s house (hey, continuity! Mark exists!), and the living room will be free of non-Unicorns as long as she needs it.

We cut to the meeting, which has to be on neutral territory until they pick a president. And since Ellen is the only one who doesn’t want to be president, it has to be her house. That’s first on the agenda, picking a president. The problem is, nobody is backing down. Ellen suggests maybe they don’t need a president, and is shouted down immediately, with a bitchy aside from Jessica that just because Ellen doesn’t have what it takes, doesn’t mean they don’t need a president.

Jeez, Ellen, just leave these harpies and join the Angels.

Ellen cuts off the argument by saying there’s something more important anyway: Family Day. Apparently this is an annual event at school, held at Green Lake Forest (… was Secca Lake busy that day? [Wing: Afternoon concert.]), where everyone picnics, plays games and socialises. Apparently the Unicorns love this. I would have imaged they’d find this a bit lame or something, like no cute boys, no cool music, no hot fashions, what’s the point, but no, the Unicorns are all over Family Day. [Raven: Family Day rings a bell… is this the first time we’ve heard of it? Probably not, if Dove hasn’t flagged it.] [Dove: It didn’t ring any bells with me, but there were so many picnics by the end that I may have missed it. My feeling is it’s another Brand New Tradition We’ve Always Had.]

Ah, so they can boast about the outfits they’ll wear and the food their parents are bringing. Never mind. Of course they’re into this.

When it’s Ellen’s turn to boast, she has nothing ready. Her parents have been brushing off her attempts to discuss it, so she blurts out some foods, but before she can get into her lie, the sounds of an argument from the kitchen filter through loudly.

Short version: Dad forgot to bring the milk home. And when you’re screaming at each other over a carton of milk, things are not good. [Raven: I dunno, it’s a bit cliched cookie-cutter argument for me. Sure, I didn’t expect there to be an argument about their sex lives or anything, but still.]

Ellen is mortified again. She’s used to these fights, but it’s even worse when it’s in front of her friends. Ellen tries to talk through the argument, but the Unicorns are kind of distracted, and quickly say that they should leave. Ellen tries to get them to stay, but they pretty much teleport out of there.

And I don’t blame them. It’s awkward as fuck.

And of course, Ellen feels like an utter failure as a hostess. Poor girl.

The argument still rages. Now Mom wants Dad to get on the roof and fix the leak, which is dripping into Ellen’s room. His stance is that it’s ages before the rainy season (wait… Sweet Valley has a rainy season???), and he doesn’t know how to fix a roof. Mom doesn’t get to counter that, but for the sake of balance and not having this seem like a one-sided shrill screaming woman raging against a poor put-upon man: Dude, if you can’t get on the roof, call someone. If there is water dripping into your tween’s bedroom, that’s not a good sign. Fix it now before it caves in and costs a fortune to fully replace and/or kills your daughter. Or at least creates mould, which will cause illness. Believe me, I know. Raven and I lived in a horrible flooded flat for six months, and we sick for pretty much the entire time. Shockingly, we got well and stayed well almost immediately after we moved out. It’s like there’s a correlation between bad living conditions and illness.

There, balance.

(Also, remember when Ellen’s dad was the type to ride wild mustangs? Yeah, this ghostie doesn’t either. Probably for the best. It was a stupid thing to write.)

Ellen clears her throat and the parents pretend they weren’t arguing. She says that she doesn’t need the leak fixing, she likes it. It makes her feel close to nature. See! This is the sweet girl that we recappers love. Bless her.

The parents very reasonably agree that it does need fixing to prevent the damage from getting worse, and they should get a handyman in to do it, since Dad is a dentist who doesn’t know how to fix the roof.

Ellen wonders if she just imagined the screaming fight seconds ago.

The parents suggest takeout for dinner, and agreeably go through all the things they want to order.

Dad asks how the skating outfit went down with her friends. Ellen immediately imagines a horrific telling off about responsibility for expensive things, and pulling stunts on the ice, and decides to… get creative with the truth.

“To tell you the truth, I’ve never gotten so much attention in my entire life,” I said truthfully. “I don’t think there was a person in the rink that didn’t notice me.”


The parents say they would like to watch her skate, and Ellen says she needs more time to practice first (and wonders how on earth she’s going to repair the outfit before they do). She rushes upstairs to fix her outfit.

She immediately disregards the sewing machine as too complex – and this is a good choice. The material is very soft and delicate, she’d probably chomp it to death with a sewing machine. I say this as someone with very basic skills – about a single step above Ellen – and has destroyed many things by not really understanding the nuance of the sewing machine settings. What you really need is @BuffyWatcher23 to help. She knows a lot about crafting of all kinds.

She cuts off the frayed edges, and has a brief dream of becoming a famous design team with Mandy Miller. I kind of love how she’s so excited about everything. She can’t find lavender cotton, so uses royal blue, which she thinks is “pretty close”, but I’m not sure. I’d have gone with white.

And then things go downhill. She pricks her finger with the needle and then the fabric starts to snag. Her progress is interrupted by dinner, but thankfully not another argument.

The next day at school she approaches the Unicorns, who were talking avidly until she walked up, which makes her feel like they were talking about the argument at her house last night. She asks what they were talking about, and they answer: the daycare centre (Lila); English homework (Kimberly); and Family Day (Jessica). Jessica then tries to sew these three topics together, and it’s not very convincing. [Raven: Ah, a comedy basic. Well done.]

Ellen calls them out on it and says that she knows it sounded like a bad fight, but it was just a normal discussion that got overblown, and the Unicorns rushed off before it could be cleared up. I’m honestly not sure if this is a lie, or Ellen is completely baffled thanks to her parents’ mood swings [Raven: This felt like Ellen trying to convince herself of the normality of things, as well as convincing the Unicorns.]

But Jessica says they really weren’t talking about the meeting, and it reads as if that’s supposed to be the truth. Ellen accepts it, anyway.

The Unicorns say that now she’s brought up the meeting, it really is a lot to expect someone to host all the meetings for an indefinite period, and the other three are happy to host (and bin that “neutral territory” rule). Again, Ellen feels like a complete failure. She pleads with them to let her host, and they agree, seeing how upset she is.

That night at dinner, Ellen brings up Family Day and stays on it until a decision is made. Her mom hasn’t a clue when it is, and her dad doesn’t seem to be listening. However, she does get her mom to commit to the food.

Then Mark chimes in that his friend Jim got a new bike. Mom says he got a new bike for Christmas. Mark says it’s not as cool as the new bike. Dad offers to take him bike shopping at the weekend.

And when Mom is incredulous, I’m totes with her. Yeah, no, Mr Riteman, even for Sweet Valley, getting two bikes in the span of nine months is excessive. He thinks it’ll be fine, they can sell the “old” bike. And Mom says of course they bloody can, it’s brand new! This sets an ugly precedent, is he going to give Mark a new bike every year, is he going to buy Ellen one…? And the answer is yes, he’ll buy Ellen a bike too. [Raven: YOU get a bike, and YOU get a bike, and YOU get a bike!] [Wing: But not a good roof.]

You know what, Mrs Riteman, just leave this asshole. He seems to have idiot manchild vibes. You’re only the mother of two people in this house, not three. Walk away, you badass.

When Dad offers her a new bike, it puts Ellen in a delicate position. If she says no, he’ll be mad, if she says yes, her mom will be mad. She tries to say that she doesn’t want one if it upsets her mom. Dad makes fun of Mom’s anger, and she snaps sure, buy everyone a bike, himself included.

Dad stomps away in a snit.

Mark asks, “Does this mean I don’t get the bike?

That was actually very enjoyably written. Although I’m totally on Mrs Riteman’s side, so far. Mr Riteman seems to be either a clueless idiot or he is deliberately riling up his wife. Either way, complete tosspot. Get in the sea.

The next morning, everything is “fine”.

Still, I felt something that’s sort of hard to explain. Even though they were acting like everything was fine, I was worried a fight might break out any second. I mean, that was happening more and more lately. My parents had become like two boxers in a ring—punching each other, then resting in between rounds.

Ellen just described my childhood there. I feel for her. My parents got along fine… I think. My dad wasn’t around much – a farm manager’s work is never done – but when he died, my mother was just this endless source of terror for me. I would never know what would set her off. And there was never any consistency. I once splashed water on the bathroom floor and cleaned it up and apologised (it was the 80s/90s – we’re talking carpet in the bathroom), and that was fine. She praised me for taking responsibility. Another time I dropped a glass – my own glass, not hers (you know when you’re a kid and you have “your” glass or cup? That.) and even though I apologised and cleaned up the mess, she raged for days about how lazy, stupid and irresponsible I was. Literally anything could set her off, and it was awful constantly being on tenterhooks, like is today the day I can watch The Famous Five after school because Mum loves Blyton too, or is it one of those days where I get yelled at for being a fat ugly slob who doesn’t do anything but watch TV? [Raven: *hugs*] [Wing: Sweet baby Dove. 💜]

It must be even harder for a kid with fighting parents, because that’s an extra variable. You have to be perfect, but so do your parents so as not to upset anyone. God, that must be stressful.

So, Ellen tries to make sure that their next argument won’t take place during the meeting. Both parents will be home, Mom will be making dinner, Dad will finish at 3pm. Ellen tries to give them both errands to keep them away from the house, but they twig pretty quickly and ask why she wants them gone. Ellen says that the club is arguing over who gets to be president and she doesn’t want to subject them to that. Neither seem to pick up the subtext (so vagueness might be a family trait?), and instead Mom offers to make brownies and Dad offers to bring home purple toothbrushes for everyone. [Raven: Super cute!]

Ellen is grateful, but still worried.

We cut to that afternoon. Both parents are home, seemingly in good moods. Dad has brought the toothbrushes, the brownies are cooling from the oven, and Mom offers to put everyone’s names on the toothbrushes in silver paint.

As insurance, Ellen finds her Johnny Buck: Live from Sweet Valley CD (which I assume was recorded at his 3pm concert at Secca Lake?) and turns it up really loudly. She tells her parents they had the opportunity to avoid the noise, but they didn’t take it. [Raven: Why the hell hasn’t Johnny Buck’s recording of a CD live from Sweet Valley been the product of a fucking book?!]

The Unicorns arrive and point out they’ve been ringing her doorbell for ten minutes, so the music needs to be quieter so they can hear each other. But the meeting starts with success, everyone loves the brownies and toothbrushes and Kimberly compliments the roses that Ellen put on the table.

They start with the presidency. Nobody wants to back down. Ellen suggests a rotation or drawing straws, but nobody likes that idea. I’d like to see a rotation, actually. You could probably get some plot out of that like Jessica pulls some kind of scam, and leaves Kimberly or Lila holding the bag because her tenure is over for now.

They move on. Lila thinks they should form an ice dancing troupe. Her dad will rent the rink and they can choreograph a routine. Huh. So you can just learn to ice dance without instruction in Sweet Valley? Of course you can. Ellen covers her internal doubt with lots of enthusiasm. Jessica reminds her that she fell over last time, as if Ellen forgot. Then Kimberly chimes in that Rick Hunter was doing an impression of Ellen’s fall in PE. Apparently it was hysterical.

Imagine being so basic that someone falling over is the hottest topic for days after.

They quiz her on the state of her skating and her outfit. She says that she’s working on both, and the outfit is near perfect. Oh, Ellen, I know these asshats would mock you if you showed weakness, but stop digging yourself a big hole. Go find nice friends.

The meeting seems to go pretty well, and Ellen is aware that both her parents are in the kitchen. Before anything can blow up, she shoos the Unicorns out the door, giving Kimberly a vase of roses and the other two brownies for the road. [Raven: So bizarre. “Take the flowers, take the vase, take the fucking couch, just get the fuck out of my house.”]

They leave before any fight can kick off, but very much aware that Ellen is getting rid of them, and it’s a bit odd.

Dinner goes “fine” again. It’s quiet and Ellen can ruminate on things. The meeting went well, but she doesn’t know what an “ice troupe” is, and she’s getting really tired of being mocked for falling over. Dude, too right.

That night she checks on her skating outfit and it’s a mess. She’ll have to pull out the stitches she already did. And that causes snags and runs in the fabric. It’s absolutely ruined, and she notes that even Lila’s father’s tailor couldn’t save it. This causes a bit of a cry (urgh, this book. I just want to adopt her and tell her everything’s ok. And then that her friends aren’t good enough for her.)

Then from downstairs, more dramatic yelling. This time Dad is yelling that he’s going, and Mom is telling him to stay until they resolve the problem. He says that’ll never happen and then leaves, slamming the door.

Ellen tries to tell herself that it’s perfectly normal, parents fight, and she’s sure her dad will come back with a bouquet of flowers and a million apologies.

Mom comes to Ellen’s room and tries to talk – admittedly, not very well – and Ellen pretends to be studying and that she doesn’t have time to talk, so Mom leaves.

That night Ellen listens for her dad’s car in the drive. It doesn’t happen. [Raven: He’s partying at the Sweet Valley Strip Club.] [Dove: “You can’t buy love, but you sure can rent it. Next up on the pole is Candy Cane!”]

The next night everything is “fine” again. Dad is back, Mom has made taco salad (Ellen’s favourite – and score for someone not having spaghetti and meatballs as their favourite meal, I know it’s good, it’s just unlikely that it’s everyone’s favourite). Both Ellen and Mark try to start conversations, and the parents say now is not the time to talk about such things.

Because they need to talk to the kids. Ellen, bless her, thinks it’s a good surprise to make up for all the fighting, like a swimming pool in the back yard, a trip to Hawaii or a puppy.

It is, in fact, a divorce.

“Ellen, it should be no mystery to you that we haven’t been getting along,” my mom explained.

“Well, my friends and I don’t always get along either. But do we break up? No! We talk and work out our differences.” Well, sort of, but it was not the time to get into a detailed analysis of how half the Unicorns had become Angels.

Boom. Headshot. I like this ghostie. Someone’s probably going to reveal in the comments that this ghostie wrote the Beige Paint Mandy books, and I’m going to be very conflicted.

Ellen tells them she’d rather they fought all the time than got divorced. She’s never once mentioned to them that she hates the fighting, she didn’t even say anything when their fight ruined her Unicorn meeting. At this point, Mom is ashamed. No word on Dad’s reaction. Probably a shrug.

Dad says he’s signed a lease on an apartment, and this is happening. Mark wants to live with Dad because he doesn’t want to be the only boy in the house. Dad gives him the “you’re the man of the house” speech, which I always think is a shitty thing to lay on a kid. He’s not the man of the house, he’s ten! You’re leaving, fine, but Mark, who’s not even a tween at this point, is not under any obligation to be a man. HE’S A FUCKING CHILD. [Raven: Well, true, but also the parents shouldn’t put much stock in his demand to stay with his dad because “ew, cooties”. The old chestnut “man of the house” schtick is a well worn trope for a reason.]

Mark, delightfully, threatens to run away. Yeah, see, that’s what happens when you tell a ten year old whose world just caved in that he’s responsible for the household.

Ellen asks what about Family Day. Each parent responds that the other will be going. Oh, nicely handled, asshats. You should have gone with “We’ll discuss it.” It’s fine not to know the answer, but to have both respond that the other is going just shows Ellen how little this means to either of them. And sure, when you’re divorcing, I’m sure going to a school picnic (probably for the hundred and thirty-seventh time this year) is low on the list. But it’s important to Ellen, so maybe pretend it’s not completely unimportant to you.

Ellen runs upstairs for a big cry. She sees the ruined skating outfit and takes out her rage on that, tearing it in half. She feels stupid for not seeing the signs. She wants to reach out for comfort to her friends, but they wouldn’t understand. Lila’s parents are divorced, but it happened when she was a baby. Kimberly and Jessica’s parents are absolutely perfect. They would just tease her. She decides the Unicorns can never know.

The next day at lunch, the Unicorns are bragging about all the swag: food, professional photographers, hats, makeup, all that shit. Kimberly asks if Lila’s photographer can take a picture of the Unicorns, and they could all get the same frame. And I actually like this idea. It’s one of those rare moments when Kimberly isn’t a complete dick.

While the Unicorns witter on about their parents, Ellen panics. How on earth is she going to conceal the divorce when only one parents shows up? Maybe she can make an excuse for whichever one doesn’t come?

Kimberly says that her parents have had “I’m Kimberly’s Mom” and “I’m Kimberly’s Dad” t-shirts made up, and they’ve given her one that says “These Are My Lucky Parents”, which to be fair, sounds mortifying for a teen. Jessica complains that her mom is making her clean under her bed, and Lila… Lila is so Lila.

“Please. My dad nearly had a heart attack because I accidentally left a soda can on his antique mahogany table and it made a water ring.” Lila rolled her eyes. “I mean, isn’t that what keeps furniture refinishers in business?”

[Raven: “Oh, hello, French Polishers? It just possible you could save my life…]

While it amuses me, Ellen is furious. How can they put down their parents, when they’re trying their best to make Family Day special for each of them. She knows if she blows up at them, her secret will come tumbling out, so she decides to be clever. She asks herself What Would Jessica Do?

[Wing: But the Mercandy yard is almost full.]

Jessica would obviously pull a parent trap. Both would show up, assuming the other wasn’t, there would be a beautiful picnic, and the parents would fall madly in love once more, and years from now this would be a funny story they told on their anniversary.

I mean… yeah, that’s exactly what Jessica would do. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not smart, Ellen.

The Unicorns notice that Ellen has zoned out again as she sets her brain to Jessica mode.

Jessica raised her eyebrow skeptically. “Sometimes I don’t know how you get through the day in one piece. You are just so out there.”

And I guess I could see her point. I was doing a lot of spacing out lately. But once I managed to get my parents back together, I’d laugh at anyone who dared call me an airhead. Only a mastermind could pull off such a feat.

You tell ‘em, Ellen!

Ok, we’re halfway through and I love this book. Thank you, ghostie, for giving me the Ellen book I deserve. [Raven: Agreed, but if her plan actually works, that’s all kind of fucking bullshit.]

After school, she puts Step 1 of her plan into action. She goes to her dad’s work, and has a really nice chat with him. Dad is actually mature, and makes it clear that it was a hard conversation and he’d never want Ellen or Mark to feel unloved. It’s good. Ellen apologises for reacting badly and says she’s spoken to Mom, and they’ve both agreed that Dad should come to Family Day instead of Mom.

Boom. Step 1 done.

OMG, she has a name for her plan. “FDRPPP2 (Family Day Reunion Plot Preparation Part Two. I’m a schemer, so from now on, everything will be in code)

Ellen, you are pure joy. I love you. And I apologise for saying Step 1, when it was clearly Part One. Now I know the naming convention, I’ll stick to it.

Part Two is the same as Part One. She bonds with Mom (again, it’s nice), and says that she, not Dad, should come to Family Day.

Part Three takes place on Saturday morning, while shopping with the Unicorns. The others are griping about their parents (Kimberly’s parents didn’t print the ugly t-shirts in purple; Alice yelled at Jessica for losing a hairband – to which I say, wow. Who the fuck can keep track of fucking scrunchies in a house with two long-haired children? [Raven: It’s obviously being used as a sex aid by a frisky Steven.]; and George Fowler asked Lila if she would be willing to wear sandals that she already owns. Asshole). At this point Ellen chips in to say that her ‘rents have a big shopping list of romantic misc for the picnic: A pink picnic blanket, wineglasses, candles, and some handmade chocolate hearts from The Chocoholic.

Ellen is funding these purchases with her life savings. Thank god everyone’s fairly wealthy in this series, because that is not a good investment. Or… god, I assume it’s not. If this is one of those books where the parents reunite, then all goodwill dies. You hear me, ghostie? IT DIES. [Raven: Hah. My thoughts entirely.]

Lila’s a bit scathing. She thinks candles during the day sounds stupid, like one of Ellen’s ideas, not her parents’. And shouldn’t the wine glasses be plastic, not glass, so they won’t break. I guess… harsh but fair. Meanly worded though.

The Unicorns split up since they can’t agree on what needs doing.

At the candle shop, a heavily pregnant shop worker tells Ellen the romantic tale of how she knew her husband was the one, and helps her pick out the perfect candle to set the mood.

Same at the candy store, but this time it’s a lady with a thick Southern accent and a gigantic diamond ring on her finger that helps her find the perfect chocolate – and she knows it works, she’s married the same man three times. *giggle* Yeah, I’m loving this. Ellen has met her people. They’re lovely and warm, and slightly weird.

She gets home with everything on her list – some of which were on sale – and shuts her bedroom door very firmly before staging a mock picnic to see how romantic it will look. She uses a bottle of shampoo to stand in for the bottle of wine she plans to liberate from her parents’ cupboard, and pencils and pens to stand in for cutlery.

Now she asks herself, What Would Lila Do? And Lila would give the picnic more oomph with fresh flowers scattered over the blanket. She resolves to pick some on the day of the picnic.

She puts everything away carefully, then goes downstairs to help her mom cook everything for the picnic.

And now we cut to Family Day Picnic. Or FDRP Day, if we’re using Ellen’s code.

She goes to her dad’s apartment. She notes it’s more like a hotel than a home, but who cares, since he’ll be back in the Riteman home by the end of the day. His apartment has nothing in it, but he’s super proud of the view over downtown from the living room, and the courtyard area at the back. And there’s a pool, jacuzzi, tennis courts and a gym. Damn, I’ve always wondered why apartment complexes over here don’t have shared areas like that. Maybe the tennis courts are an impossible ask, but a pool and gym would definitely be a selling point. [Raven: I’m pretty sure they do, at a certain price point.] [Dove: True, the apartments that share a building with my work have a gym and other perks, but not a pool. The pool is the important thing here.]

He hopes Ellen will help him shop for things to turn it into a home – not too much purple, if possible – and Ellen thinks that would be fun, but it’s not going to happen, since he’ll be moving home.

We find out that Dad has been very much looking forward to this, he’s been out and shopped like a demon. There’s food for the sandwiches, chips, fruit, veggies, cake, and cheese and crackers. Ok, so maybe he’s only an asshole when in a miserable living situation. Doesn’t entirely let him off the hook, but it definitely shows that his kids mean the world to him.

Once they’ve prepped the food, Ellen has to leave. Dad wants her to hang around and do her homework, but she needs to go help her mom. She says that Lila needs her, because the servants have Sundays off, which is another epic and understated line. This ghostie gets Ellen.

Once she gets home, she tricks her mom into upscaling her appearance. She’d been planning on jeans and a t-shirt, but Ellen talks her into a flowery dress, and Mom actually feels that it would be nice to go a bit all-out on her appearance, just to make a change from the stress of the past few days. Good, you do you, Mrs Riteman.

Since both manipulations have gone off without a hitch, Ellen feels she can do anything, even fix her skating outfit. She imagines herself skating with her parents, saying they’re a family and they stick together through thick and thin.

At the picnic, Ellen has to get rid of her mom so she can set up the romantic picnic. Mrs Riteman isn’t really ready to socialise and would clearly prefer to stay close to Ellen and have a family day, but Ellen tells her that Alice Wakefield just waved, and god forbid you snub Saint Alice.

Ellen is nearly done setting up with Lila comes over. She’s uncharacteristically quiet, and Ellen assumes she’s here for a compliment. Even though she already doled some out, she adds more and more, while Lila makes hopeless attempts to start some kind of conversation [Raven: I am here for this, or I would be if they followed through. Lila should be the shoulder for Ellen, but she doens’t get the opportunity to shine. Shame.] [Dove: Agreed, this is a missed opportunity, because Lila was awesome when she talked to Melissa about missing her mom.]. Eventually Ellen says she’s really busy and is Lila going to help or what? So Lila gets to help for all of three seconds before Ellen spots both her parents heading straight for her. She tells Lila to leave, and braces herself for a perfect reunion.

It’s not a perfect reunion. Dad mocks Mom for being overdressed. Mom points out how slovenly Dad looks and they both accuse each other of stealing Family Day from them. Voices are raised. People are looking. Ellen begs them to stop, but now they’re getting into the Machiavellian intent of using Ellen to ruin each other’s day.

She tries to come clean, but they both shut her down, too intent on their dislike of each other. She ends up yelling out her entire plan because they won’t listen. And when it’s all out there, the parents are stunned, and the Unicorns are in earshot, and staring right at Ellen.

I turned toward the Unicorns. “You guys are right. I’m the stupidest girl in the world. Don’t worry. You don’t have to kick me out of the club. At least I can do one ring tight.”

“What are you talking about?” Kimberly asked.

Jessica looked baffled. “What’s a ring tight?”

I stomped my feet on the ground. “No. I mean, one thing right.” I took a deep breath. “I quit!”

And then I did the only thing I could think of. I ran for it.

Wow. Just wow.

Godamnit, ghostie, my Ellen is hurting here. [Raven: On one hand, poor POOR Ellen. On the other hand… run away!]

Ellen imagines the worst: Elizabeth taking notes for a play-by-play of the fight for 7&8 Gazette, Bruce (uh… Bruce is in high school, ghostie, do you mean Rick?) and Peter replaying the fight for the lolz at school, and Amanda from Eight Times Eight playing the role of Ellen using a baby voice.

Poor girl.

There was only one solution. I would leave Sweet Valley forever. I could go live with my aunt in Wyoming. My parents would be relieved to get me off their hands. I’d get a new name and concoct a new identity. I would make a new set of friends who didn’t know about my checkered past.

Well. Now we know why Ellen doesn’t make it to Sweet Valley High. It’s a slow-burn reaction to this. And now we know where she went.

At this point, the Unicorns arrive with a gift. They have replaced her skating outfit. They had to get it rushed from the LA branch of the store. They knew she hadn’t fixed it, she’s awful at sewing and she’s a terrible liar – but Ellen notes that when they say this, they don’t seem to be making fun of her. They knew how upset she was and pooled their money to buy a new one.

Ellen realises that if they thought she needed cheering up, then they know about the divorce. It turns out that Jessica found out on Friday, when her idiot dad, who I’m pretty sure never passed the BAR, told her that Ellen’s dad called him for legal advice. She tries to cover, saying that he just assumed Jessica already knew, so he wasn’t letting anything slip. Yeah, no, fuck you, Ned. That’s not how privacy works. You can’t just tell your family what’s going on in other families because you assume that gossip is circulating. You’re a terrible person and a worse lawyer.

Also, for all Ned knew, Dad was only going for advice, he hadn’t broached the subject with his fam. I’ve had that happen. Decades ago when I was in family law, a friend of Raven’s approached the firm I was at for legal/financial advice if he were to leave his wife (he didn’t know I worked there). He never actually left. How many people do you think I told about that? If you guessed zero, you’re correct. I told Raven later down the line when the couple (still together) had long fallen out of our social circle.

Imagine if Jessica had come up to Ellen and been all “Hai! I know your parents are getting a divorce?” and Ellen’s world crumbles. Or maybe she even thinks Jessica’s making fun of her?

Bad. Fucking. Form. Ned. #WorstLawyerInTheWorld [Raven: I’m sure Ned was fired years ago, and just pretends to head to the office every day but instead goes to feed his cheese sandwiches to the ducks at the local park, crying all the while.]

Apparently Jessica and Lila have both given Ellen opportunity to bring up the situation, but she never did, and they all agreed that she should be the one to bring up the topic. Wow, when Jessica Wakefield has a stronger grasp on privacy than her father, you’ve got to wonder how many class action lawsuits are waiting in the wings against him.

They ask why she didn’t tell them, and Ellen admits that she feels like they think she’s a train wreck. They make fun of her daffiness and act like she’s an embarrassment to them.

This is news to them. They had no idea they were hurting her feelings. They call her an airhead, and Jessica a flirt or Lila a snob. Ellen says that it’s more personal to insult someone’s brains than point out that someone likes boys or has a lot of money. And yeah, I sort of agree with her, but there’s also layers to that. If anything bad ever happened to Jessica regarding consent, being known as a flirt pretty much makes it “her fault”; and calling Lila spoiled implies that there’s nothing to her but money, there’s an underlying tone of her not being clever or interesting, she’s just a trophy.

But anyway, the Unicorns all agree that they hadn’t realised it was so hurtful to Ellen and they’ll stop… well, slow down.

They then say that they really value her, and while she is a little ditzy, it adds to her character. She’s dependable and they love her, and the club wouldn’t work without her. Well, that’s nice. And it’s so nice that Ellen starts crying again.

They compliment her on the cleverness of her plan and the beautiful look of the blanket, and then they reassure her that it was early in the picnic, most people didn’t even notice. [Raven: I also liked Lila’s line where she basically said “Don’t worry, Ellen. Nobody really gives a shit about anything except themselves. Sorry to break it to you.”]

Ellen tells them to appreciate their parents more, even if they are a bit dorky (yes, Kimberly is wearing that t-shirt). I mean, philosophically, yes, but Alice and Ned are terrible parents, and the Havers brought up the toxic mess that is Kimberly, so they’re probably not good people. George Fowler… uh, mostly good?

The chapter ends with Jessica saying that “Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.” No, wait, that’s The Crow. No, she says that no matter what happens to family, Unicorns are forever.

And as Raven pointed out to me while reading this, yeah, until you remember that Ellen doesn’t make it to Sweet Valley High.

Ellen goes back to her mom, and she’s now ravenous, because she was too nervous to eat this morning. She apologises for scheming and says that she’ll take any punishment, because she deserves it – and I’m back to Mrs Riteman is the one decent parent in Sweet Valley. She and Ellen are some of the few decent people in the whole town.

Her mom says that she’d love if they didn’t need to divorce, but they do. It’s not working. She’s frightened about how much things will change, but they can’t stay how they are. Which is refreshingly honest. Ellen asks when things went wrong, and her mom can’t really pinpoint a single moment, it just slowly broke down. And she’s really sorry Ellen and her friends had to hear them fight.

Ellen shows her mom the skating outfit the Unicorns bought her and explains about the other one. Mom immediately asks whether Ellen hurt herself and why she didn’t tell her about it. Mom reassures her that Ellen can always come to her.

I’ve got to say, that was a surprisingly healthy parent-child interaction in Sweet Valley. Surely it can’t be legal to be that open and supportive of your child when they’ve done nothing wrong. Alice only supports Jessica that whole-heartedly when Jessica’s lied herself into a completely nightmare world.

And then they enjoy the picnic. And also make a joke about how she and Mr Fowler should hook up so she and Lila could be sisters. That was cute. [Raven: Poor Bambi, so easily forgotten.]

We cut to the same afternoon, over in Mr Riteman’s apartment. He’s trying super hard, listing off the facilities (did he mention the pool and tennis courts, because they have them, you know that, right?) and confirming over and over that she and the Unicorns are welcome, and they can use the pool and the tennis courts if they want. They plan to go furniture shopping to help make his place more homey.

And then they have a serious conversation. He apologises for being a bad example of men, and even though he’s difficult, he hopes that she won’t be afraid to fall in love when she gets older, just in case it doesn’t work out. Wow, to be honest, that’s a conversation I’ve not seen. Maybe I haven’t read a lot of divorce books that I can remember (loads when I was really young, but can’t remember any of them), but that was a fresh take for me.

Then they drop some chips and have a joke about crushing them into the carpet (uh… ok?) and then Dad mentions the pool and tennis courts again.

It’s all good.

Ok, still the same day – good god, this is a busy day. Maybe when you’re thirteen you can do all this, but I’d be tapped out after the first two emotional conversations – the Unicorns go to the skating rink to have their first practice as an ice troupe.

She wears her new outfit and basks in the compliments, and bats a couple back about the people who bought it for her, then reveals something: she doesn’t know what an ice troupe is. She finally has the confidence to ask.

After a protracted silence, Lila says she made it up. She thought it sounded more chic than a group of ice dancers.

And then Ellen says she’s not ready. Maybe when she’s a better skater, but not now. And the rest actually agree it would take a chunk of time, and they can still have the ice rink party, but not perform. It takes the pressure off.

Jessica then reminds Ellen of the day that she caught them chatting about something and they were evasive about what it was. Well, they’d come up with a solution to the president problem. It’s Ellen. She’s the best choice.

“You’re the backbone of the group,” Jessica said sincerely. “You’ve been concerned with club unity all along. You never stir up conflict and you never make an excuse for missing a meeting.”

“Plus you ran the past couple of meetings so efficiently,” Kimberly pointed out. “We were really impressed.”

“And you obviously have a flair as a hostess,” Lila added.

Actually, all true. Go Ellen! [Raven: Loved this. I suspected they’d go there early on in the book, but I never seriously considered it.]

And then we have a lead-in to the next book, where they all say that while there happy with how things are, they miss Mandy and they’d love to have her back. The next book is called Mandy in the Middle, so… Beige Paint Mandy Part III will be hitting this site on 6 December, recapped by Raven. And I’m sure I won’t be angry or hateful to Mandy at all.

Final Thoughts:

Wow. Ok, that was actually great. My beloved character survived an entire book not just about her, but from her point of view. This could have easily gone off the rails and made her really stupid, but instead it kept her charmingly naïve, which is how I always see her. (I ignore the books where she’s a shrill screaming harpy.)

But damn, it made me sad for her. It made me question whether she’s actually as daft as she acts, or whether she’s a jumble of nerves after a few blurts of silliness and now has accepted everyone’s headcanon that she’s an idiot.

I do think she deserves better friends, but it is nice to see that they value her so much. And yeah, Ellen is now president, bring that on. Although I’m certain that it will last a whole book before Mandy comes back and takes over again. That’s my prediction, anyway.

So, overall, this is a win for me, and there were some refreshing conversations (particularly Dad telling Ellen not to be afraid to fall in love, and Mom reassuring her that everyone loves her) that we don’t usually get in Sweet Valley, where everything usually gets tied up with a cloyingly adorable and perfect bow.

As a side note, I realised when Ellen mentioned the Eight Times Eight club that a better narrative would have been that the Unicorns/Angel split never happened, and actually the whole Kimberly/Mary feud was not a feud, but two people trying and failing to connect (maybe one is over-sensitive and the other is clumsy in their attempts to start a conversation/friendship and both think the other hates them and the rest of the then-Unicorns help them learn that Friendship is Awkward as well as Magic), but they unite against a common enemy: Eight Times Eight. That way we could still keep the different personalities together, and have an actually evil set of bullies, because even I don’t give a shit about the Eights. I mean, everyone kind of loves the special editions where basically 3x Team Boring + 3x Unicorns = wacky fun with new friend combos.

[Raven: That was a fun book! Ellen was totally charming. The plot was a little hackneyed, but it was delivered with gusto and verve. The dialogue was witty and sharp, and the ghostie didn’t pull any plot punches and went down the right path with the denouement.

The only thing that marks it down for me is that I’d like to have seen Lila offer a little more support as the “friend who’s been through it”. They offered lip service, and did mention that their situations aren’t exactly the same, so it does get an overall pass. I still think it would have added to proceedings.

Also, Jessica actually used the line “I’d love to nail your dad,” when talking to Ellen. What’s not to love?!]

[Wing: Best book of the series, which may be faint praise. Dove’s recap said it all, and I wish we’d get more of this characterization.]