Background: We have to address the elephant in the room: Sweet Valley Confidential, the long-rumored “ten years-later” sequel to Francine Pascal’s various Sweet Valley series which finally came to fruition last year. The big news at the time was that Pascal was finally going to be writing a volume of the series that she “created”: the actual writing on Sweet Valley High et al had been farmed out to ghostwriters since its inception.
It’s not news by now that Sweet Valley Confidential did not live up to anyone’s hope for it: boring characters doing boring things that made no sense lead me to repeatedly ask aloud “WHY IS THIS EVEN A BOOK???” Didn’t an editor look at the manuscript before hitting “print”? How can something that was allegedly in the works for YEARS (Bust magazine reported on its then-impending publication back in 2005) come out so half-baked? What Confidential is missing is what props up the reputation of the original Sweet Valley High series in memory: those weird bits of business and throwaways by the ghostwriters that 30somethings can still name-check (Tofu-Glo! 1BRUCE1! The Pornstache!) Maybe the novella-length follow-ups that are set to be e-published starting next month will be better? (I’m setting myself up for disappointment again, aren’t I?)
But before Pascal got back to writing for her brand, in fact before she was a brand at all, (but after she wrote the Tony Award-winning [!!!] Broadway musical George M!) she was actually wrote her own books, and at least one of them is pretty good.
The Plot: Nascent girl-delinquent Victoria Martin is on the verge of being expelled from her fancy New York City prep school (the school emblem looks like “an eagle sitting on a toilet”) after inciting a riot during a field trip to see the movie version of Richard II, which the entire class is disappointed to find doesn’t include the nudity of the movie version Romeo and Juliet. Victoria’s mother, Mrs. Felicia Martin, is at her wits’ end, having long tired of dealing with her daughter’s antics: between her ongoing troublemaking at school and her fighting with her younger sister, Mrs. Martin direly warns Victoria that “the only alternative is boarding school”. Clearly, the only thing that can bridge this generation gap is some sort of Freaky Friday-slash-Time Travel scenario!
Despite the fact that Victoria has been suspended and is due to meet with the school principle to discuss her future (or lack thereof) at Brendon Prep first thing Monday morning, she is successful in convincing her mother to allow her to attend her favorite cousin’s birthday party in Philadelphia that weekend. Victoria is very excited to try out her new retro-Veronica Lake hairstyle at the party, but when she discovers that her younger sister has borrowed her socks without asking, she gets into a knock-down, drag-out brawl in the waiting room at the (new) Penn Station. That’s the last straw for Mom, who, in a frank depiction of mom-freaking-out, orders Victoria to “get on that goddamn train right this minute!” Victoria spends the ride to Philly thinking dark thoughts about how her mother is a total “B-I-T-C-H”.
Victoria only digs herself into a deeper hole at her cousin Liz’s party after her aunt catches her smoking a joint and informs her that she is being sent home “because she couldn’t let a thing as serious as ‘smoking a pot’ go by without teaching Liz a very serious lesson.” Victoria internally-monologues that “It’s a good thing the guys weren’t smoking two pots or she would have called the police.”
On the way back into New York all of the lights go off on the train, and when they come back on, Victoria emerges in the (old) Penn Station. While she immediately notices that something is amiss, it takes a really long time for her to clue in to what has happened. She observes that she is the only person wearing blue jeans, but she chalks it up to a convention of “librarians, funeral directors, and Eagle Scouts” being in town, and assumes that she has gotten lost in a section of the train station she has never been to before. Luckily, she soon runs into a girl her own age, the wildly extroverted Cici, who helps her search for her mother and when she isn’t found, offers to take her out to Queens to hang out until they can locate Mrs. Martin.
Cici turns out to be more advanced in her delinquency than Victoria: the titular “hangin’ out” involves shoplifting at the local Woolworth’s and then sneaking into the movies to catch a double feature of Laura and Since You Went Away (where they end up inciting another riot after fighting off a raincoat-clad pervert). Victoria still hasn’t figured out what is going on- as a lifetime resident of Central Park West, Jamaica, Queens might as well be the moon, what with its rattan subway seats and low, low prices on chow mein sandwiches. Finally, as these things usually happen, Victoria eventually arrives at Cici’s house and is introduced to her decades-younger grandmother, and is able put it all together and realizes that it is 1944 and Cici is her own mother.
Cici arranges to have Victoria stay with her and her family, because there is a war on and people are probably taking in all kinds of war orphans and hobos and whatnot, so nobody is too concerned about Victoria’s seemingly non-existent family. Besides, Cici’s got heavier stuff on her mind- she too is having problems in school and is not going to be allowed to graduate with her 8th grade class unless she passes an important science exam. Instead of studying, Cici is planning on taking the easy way out after she learns that the teacher’s 19 year old delinquent son, Ted, has a crush on her and is willing to steal a copy of the answers- for a price. When he ups the price after she refuses to “put out” (DID I MENTION THAT SHE IS IN THE 8TH GRADE?? INAPPROPRIATE!) she resorts to stealing money out of the USO contribution box, which results in more mayhem when she is caught. At this point even Cici has had enough and wants to confess, but her parents are more concerned about “not causing a scandal” and are willing to cover for her. In the meantime there is an air raid drill and Victoria runs smack into a wall as she scrambles around to help with the black-out shutters and gives herself a concussion. When she awakens, she is on the train pulling in to the (new) Penn Station, once again in the 1970s.
Of course, through her experience she has developed a deeper understanding concerning her Mother and a greater appreciation for mature behavior… but there is still the matter of the meeting with her principle and looming expulsion. But! It turns out that the principle is delinquent Ted! Because Cici/Mrs. Martin didn’t rat him out and took the blame for the stolen test all those years ago, she is able to emotionally blackmail him into keeping Victoria at Brendon. So it wasn’t all a dream after all! Blueberry pancakes for everyone!
Like many YA works of its era, Hangin’ Out With Cici has a certain casual attitude towards teenage sex and drug use- even the scenes set in 1944 are surprisingly racy: Cici takes Victoria to a make-out party, and shows her a Tijuana Bible featuring Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. They also plan to sneak into Cici’s brother’s room to steal his copy of Tropic of Cancer, which Victoria is less-than-excited about, since in 1977 a copy of The Joy of Sex graces every sophisticated Manhattanite’s coffee table.
Overall, the plot chugs right along, and the chapters set in the 1940s are reasonably accurate in slang and rich in period details: Killroy Was Here graffiti! An expedition to collect tin foil from cigarette packs for the War Effort! All of the boys at the make-out party are so short that they are “practically midgets”! Because they grew up during the Depression and probably suffered from malnutrition and polio! I have to come to the conclusion that, at least at some point, Francine Pascal could write a serviceable YA novel. So, can we please get a cameo appearance from the 1BRUCE1 in the upcoming Sweet Valley sequels?
Sign It Was Written in 1977 Department: Movie theaters with smoking sections! Also Victoria’s constant vigilance against muggers and rapists while riding the subway.
Can Someone From The Actual Greatest Generation Please Explain Department: How to play “ring-a-levio”?
You’re Going To Get A Staph Infection! Department: Victoria and her friend Steffi don’t think twice about using “some sensational new aqua eyeliner” that they find in a public restroom. Gross!