Caitlin. Beautiful. Dazzling. Charming. Outrageous. Rich. Unforgettable. And very, very clever.
Sweet Valley High is often criticized for presenting unrealistic expectations of one’s teenaged years and promoting unhealthy images of romantic relationships to its young readership: everyone is rich and beautiful and if you’re not, there is something wrong with you. Better get Jessica to stop being a sociopath and give you a makeover! (Also, stalking is a sign of devotion, punching solves most problems, and it is totally normal for your twin sister’s ex-boyfriend to try and hump you when you wake up from a coma having undergone a personality transplant).
This lesser-known series from the Pascal word-factory is in some ways exactly what you would expect from a title with so much punctuation in it: the ghostwriter has taken every YA Fiction cliché and chucked it into a blender along with a heaping scoop of deus ex machina and vaguely-described medical conditions. There are boarding schools, long-lost fathers, tragically dead mothers, love at first sight, prom, babysitting, prom dresses and porntacular descriptions of the material trappings of the mega-rich.
Oh, and horses.
As a bonus, topical issues such as sexual assault, abortion and eating disorders are occasionally dropped into the narrative and dealt with in the most offensive ways possible. Add it all up and Sweet Valley High starts to seem… well if not realistic, at least harmless in comparison.
The first book in the first of three trilogies (Triple-trilogy? Non-ilogy?) introduces the reader to 15 year old Caitlin Ryan, a “heroine” whose motivation lies solely in making Highgate Academy’s lone scholarship student feel uncomfortable about being poor so she can steal her boyfriend. We’re supposed to sympathize with her, because:
To everyone at her exclusive boarding school, she seems to have it all. But there is a secret need that haunts her life. A need for love. And only one boy can make her forget her cold home life can fulfill her need for love: handsome, sensitive Jed Michaels. Jed, who has already given his heart to another girl.
Caitlin’s mother is tragically dead and her nogoodnik father is mysteriously out of the picture; she has been raised by her grandmother, a coal mine magnate! Granny Ryan is awesomely evil, constantly justifying destroying the Virginia landscape with strip-mining while she sends Appalachian babies to their child-labor induced deaths so she can buy another Rolls Royce!
Diana, the Scholarship Girl whose life Caitlin is trying to destroy, is dating Jed Michaels from Montana. Jed is also rich and manly and makes Caitlin feel, like, feelings. She must have him!
Caitlin invites Jed and Scholarship Girl to Ryan Acres for a house party, during which she will embarrass Diana into admitting that she doesn’t know anything about butlers or horses or Chippendale breakfronts which will cause Jed to see the light and break up with her.
It doesn’t work, but Caitlin gets a second chance: while she takes charge of the Highgate Academy Charity Committee, Scholarship Girl is assigned the work-study duty of babysitting the headmaster’s 9 year old son. During the course of planning the charity fundraiser which is also a musical comedy show, Caitlin leaves the door to a toolshed unlocked and the boy wanders in, eats random unnamed “gardening chemicals” and becomes paralyzed. Scholarship Girl gets blamed for it, and Caitlin takes opportunity to steal her man.
Can she keep this dark secret from Jed and win his heart?
Volume I ends with Caitlin feeling a little guilty about swiping Scholarship Girl’s boyfriend and letting her take the blame for the paralyzation, and her subsequent Leaving Of School In Disgrace. So she writes Jed a lengthy letter confessing all… which she then decides not to give him.
Volume II opens with said letter being placed in a book of poetry, which is then placed in the glove compartment of Caitlin’s brand new Nissan ZX, and then in a COMPLETELY REASONABLE AND NOT AT ALL CONTRIVED FASHION into Jed’s pants pocket, and then the contents of the letter into Jed’s brain.
Jed decides to retaliate by date-raping some humility into Caitlin at the Highgate Prom:
Caitlin had dreamed of the day that she would Give Her Love to Jed- but she never wanted it to be this way…
Jed decides that he can’t go through with it, and breaks up with her instead.
Caitlin spends the summer vacation at Ryan Acres, the estate that her granny’s coal mining plunder has bought. Eventually, she receives word from Jed’s cousin that Scholarship Girl is JUST COINCIDENTALLY in a hospital in a nearby county. Apparently the whole paralyzed-kid thing has caused her to become… anorexic!
Caitlin comes up with a completely reasonable way to atone for her sins. She will wear theatrical makeup and dowdy clothes and go volunteer at the hospital under an assumed name. (Aside: wasn’t this a subplot in one of the Anastasia Krupnik books? And didn’t Anastasia totally fail to fool anyone with her disguise?)
So, Caitlin In Disguise is taken on as a volunteer, despite not having any references or a telephone number, and the hospital staff allows her to take over Scholarship Girl’s medical treatment because she’s catatonic and “nobody can reach her”. Except Caitlin! Who sort-of confesses that she’s the one to blame for leaving the shed open!
To Scholarship Girl’s credit, when she snaps out of it, she’s all “WTF? Why is that mean girl from the boarding school wearing Baby Jane makeup and working as a candy striper?”
Her disguise also does not fool the handsome Dr. Westlake, who thinks that Caitlin In Disguise looks like a girl her knew, long ago… (FOOOOOOOORE SHAAADOWING!)
Caitlin eventually confesses to Scholarship Girl, who immediately forgives her for giving her anorexia and forcing to go to public school, and promises to take the secret to her grave. Mean Granny finds out that she’s doing (gross!) volunteer work and makes her quit- but not before it is revealed that Handsome Dr. Westlake is… Caitlin’s father! Caitlin is not happy:
“You abandoned me! My mother died and you didn’t want me. My grandmother told me! You only wanted my mother’s money. You didn’t want a baby! I despise you! I hate you!”
Caitlin starts dating Scholarship Girl’s boring friend Laurence and vows to never hurt anyone again.
Volume III three opens with Caitlin once again pining away for Jed, who has returned to Highgate from a summer of being bronzed in the Montana sunshine.
Umm… there is a lot of horse stuff in this one. Caitlin and her grandmother and New Boyfriend Laurence spend an entire chapter participating in a fairly gory (but oh-so-patrician!) fox hunt.
Caitlin organizes the senior picnic on some land that her grandmother owns, which has been reduced to unpicturesque slag heaps, prompting some discussion on the horrors of strip mining, which is possibly foreshadowing for the later trilogy in which Caitlin becomes a muck-raking journalist.
There is a mine tunnel collapse and a rescue which seems to defy the laws of physics, and New Boyfriend Laurence gets smacked on the head, and when he comes to tells Caitlin that he doesn’t mind if she leaves him for Jed.
And Caitlin reunites with Jed AND her father in the same scene that kid-who-ate-gardening-chemicals-and-was-rendered-paralyzed rises from his wheelchair and walks! Cue heavenly choir!
THIS GOES ON FOR SIX MORE BOOKS! And each of the trilogies is numbingly repetitive in content. Book I: Caitlin and Jed get together, then break up! Book II: Caitlin mopes! Book III: Caitlin and Jed get back together, order is restored to the universe! Also (spoilers!) someone will wear a disguise.
However, the books are highly instructive in letting us parvenus in on what our Social Betters eat (Perrier and brie!), wear (jumpsuits!) and furnish their mansions with (white wicker and canopy beds!)
Be sure to look for From The Creator Of Sweet Valley High, Francine Pascal: Caitlin: The Promise Trilogy: Tender Promises, Promises Broken and A New Promise and From The Creator Of Sweet Valley High, Francine Pascal: Caitlin: The Forever Trilogy: Dreams of Forever, Forever And Always and Together Forever wherever fine books and unhealthy adolescent fantasies are sold.