Moral Ambiguity in Sweet Valley: My Retro Review of Deceptions (Book #14 of SVH)

I am really excited for the October release of Paperback Crush by Gabrielle Moss. So excited that I have decided to read a retro teen paperback every week up to the week of release. Last week I read and reviewed Remember Me by Christopher Pike and it was completely bonkers! This week I return to everyone’s favorite retro high school: Sweet Valley High.

Some backstory for this post: last summer I was given a huge box of Sweet Valley High books. It was glorious in its retro beauty. I started reading from the beginning and then took a break because binge-reading SVH can become mind-numbing. The last book I read was #13 Kidnapped!. For this retro read, I picked up where I left off – with Elizabeth Wakefield saved from her kidnapping situation and the appearance of Nicholas and Regina Marrow.

The dialogue of a Sweet Valley High book is always horrible. #14 Deceptions is no exception, in fact, I would argue that Deceptions is Kate William at her laziest. If I had a dollar for every time there was an “Oh, Todd!” exclaimed in the book, I would be rich and retired.

The basic premise of this 135-page masterpiece is simple: Elizabeth Wakefield has been dating Todd Wilkins forever (they even got in a motorcycle accident together) and Elizabeth’s twin sister Jessica is crushing hard on the new rich boy in town named Nicholas Marrow. We meet them in the previous book, but because of her kidnapping, Elizabeth doesn’t meet Nicholas until the beginning of Deceptions. Nicholas falls in love with Elizabeth at first sight, ignores it when she says she has a boyfriend, and pressures her to go on a date with him. Elizabeth agrees and feels guilty for the entire week leading up to the date. She lies to Todd. She lies to Jessica. Finally, the night of the date Elizabeth and Nicholas randomly run into Todd (of course!) and Todd dumps her. Elizabeth is heartbroken, Jessica is mad, and Nicholas ends up making it right by explaining to Todd that he pressured Elizabeth into going out with him. Todd and Elizabeth reunite.

Clearly, there is a lot wrong with this book. I’m sure that the eleven-year-old me thought the theme of this book was true love and friendship or some shit – maybe even that you shouldn’t lie to people. The adult me sees the themes of this book as toxic masculinity and moral ambiguity. Not only does Nicholas (and Todd) display enormous amounts of masculinity overload, but Elizabeth is completely able to justify her infidelity. It’s weird.

Nicholas and his machismo is evident from the first chapter, as he stalks Elizabeth around her own house. He makes goo-goo eyes at her to the point where she gets uncomfortable and looks around for Todd. Todd, for whatever reason, is so secure in his belief that he is the best boyfriend ever and that Elizabeth would never like anyone else, that he isn’t even jealous of all the attention that Nicholas gives to Elizabeth. Until later, when Todd is jealous because the book needs a plausible reason for Elizabeth to feel guilty about not telling Todd about her date.

Elizabeth basically only agrees to the date with Nicolas because she is worried that her rejection might hurt his feelings. This is such bullshit that my eyes almost rolled out of my head. Telling a guy that you cannot date him because you are already dating someone is not being mean. Yet, this book spends a majority of its scant pages describing all the reasons why Elizabeth can’t break the date. Those reasons all center around hurting Nicholas. To be fair to Todd, Elizabeth spends at least two sentences worried about hurting her boyfriend’s feelings – only to rationalize that Todd will “totally understand.” Even the reader doesn’t understand you, Elizabeth.

Deceptions and its themes of toxic masculinity remain true to the end – with Todd’s masculinity hinging on his ability to win a basketball game. It is clear that Elizabeth essentially cheating on him with Nicholas has caused Todd to lose his athletic ability. It is only when Nicholas explains his stalker-ish and abrasive behavior to Todd that Todd sees that Elizabeth was pressured into the date. He becomes good friends with Nicholas (even telling Elizabeth that Nicholas is a “great guy”), and goes back on the court to win the game. This Sweet Valley High book ends with another moral message: forgive the aggressive dude that pressures your girlfriend for a date and has zero respect for boundaries. And forgive your girlfriend too – she had a good reason to lie.

Ugh. This book is the worst.