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Back in the day, I devoured all of the Sweet Valley books. The drama in them was intense: a party every other weekend, a dance every weekend in between, clothes-swapping, place-switching, boyfriend-stealing, and an endless string of insane jobs and hobbies. Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield have led, by the time they turn seventeen (ending the Sweet Valley High series and starting the well-meaning but far inferior Senior Year series), the lives of roughly a hundred and thirty-seven people. So how do you top that nonsense? When you’re Francine Pascal, you go back in time and create an elaborate family tree for the Wakefield clan, in two books of the Sweet Valley Saga: The Wakefields of Sweet Valley and The Wakefield Legacy. Spoilers, and complete and total popcorn-munching ridiculousness to follow…

To fully appreciate these books, I’ll drop some backstory knowledge on you: the Sweet Valley High books focus on twin sisters. Elizabeth is trustworthy, a wannabe journalist and/or author, who is very smug all the time because she always does The Right Thing, and is in a steady (sorta) relationship with boring-but-occasionally-violent Todd Wilkins. Jessica is fashionable, and desires only to be popular, famous, and rich. She dates only the handsomest boys, not caring who she steps on along the way. The internet in our modern age has concluded she’s a total sociopath. They also have an older brother Steven, whose most interesting thing was dating a girl who died of leukemia. Their parents are Ned, successful lawyer, and Alice, successful interior designer who is lovely and youthful looking, often mistaken for the twins’ older sister (so the narrative claims, though I don’t recall any specific evidence of this).

The Wakefields of Sweet Valley actually does not focus on the Wakefield side of the family at all. It instead starts with Alice Larson, a great-great-great-grandmother of J&W, who travels to America by boat, alone and orphaned, and is of course a great Swedish beauty. I’m gonna save us all some time and say every single person in these books is too beautiful to live. Alice is standing on the deck during a storm and witnesses a small boy go overboard, so she dives in the sea after him and of course nearly drowns in the attempt, and a handsome gentleman dives in and saves her life. (Pay attention, this will be important/stupid later!) Even though they have a language difference between them, Alice and Theodore Wakefield hit it off and he proposes marriage before they even make it to American shores. Once the boat docks, however, Theodore is quarantined as a suspected carrier of typhus, and though Alice waits for him, she’s eventually carted off to live with her uncle, never seeing Theodore again. It’ll turn out later that Theodore is a total dickwad, so all the better for her, yet still, she laments: “No matter what happened, she knew she would be waiting for Theodore Wakefield forever.” Which super sucks, because in literally the next sentence, she is married to a dude named George and has given birth to twins. You really, sincerely feel for all of the non-Wakefield husbands in this book, as they get zero courtship time and the distinct impression that they’ll always be second-best to these lost loves that get a paragraph or two. But since the book ignores George, so can we, since Alice is an adult now and who cares about that when we can focus on twin teenage girls! Who are named Jessamyn and Elizabeth, because why bother trying, really? The check’s already been cashed.

Elisabeth Johnson is bookish and nerdy (as nerdy as you can be in 1893), and twin Jessamyn is a pistol. Long story short, Elisabeth falls in love with a local named Tom Wilkens, because again, why try, and Jessamyn is interesting, running off to join the circus as a bareback rider. But while she’s on the road, her old Native American friend Peter Blue Cloud, who taught her how to ride, takes ill. Elisabeth runs away from home and hops boxcars in search of the circus, to reunite Jessamyn and Blue Cloud, as is his dying wish. The sisters reunite happily, but Elisabeth is so pleased about being adventurous that she shows off her own bareback riding skills. She dies tragically ten seconds later. Blue Cloud dies, too. Jessamyn says screw it to everything and moves to San Francisco to open a hotel, because why not?

In San Fran, Jessamyn finds herself torn between the steadfast and true love of automobile magnate Taylor Watson (because Francine just keeps a phone book open to the W pages at all times), and sexy but untrustworthy racecar driver Bruce. It is 1906. If you think that a Wakefield ancestor being in San Francisco in 1906 is coincidence, you have never read these books and I am sorry for you, because you might actually be surprised that Jessamyn’s hotel gets all earthquaked, there is an elderly woman trapped inside, both of Jessamyn’s beaus are there, one of them does something noble to save lives, and one of them is a butt and only saves himself.

So let’s skip ahead to Jessamyn and Taylor’s (were you surprised? Be honest) three children: older brother Harry and twin girls Samantha (the Jessica type) and Amanda (the Elizabeth type). It’s the 1920s. Samantha falls in love with the photo of Harry’s college roommate Ted Wakefield, who is a journalist and jazz enthusiast, who gets them access to all the hotspots around Detroit. But oh no, Ted is not swayed by Samantha’s super happening twenties bobbed beauty, and instead falls for Amanda’s soul of a poet. He and Amanda conduct a secret affair via the post. Samantha steams open their letters, is furious because she had dibs, and this completely throws the entire dibs system out of whack. So the guy you have a crush on likes your sister better. What do you do? Get him arrested by the Feds for bootlegging. Sam also pretends to be Amanda when she does it, so Ted will never forgive Amanda. And he doesn’t! Sociopathy runs in the family, apparently.

It’s okay, though, because comeuppance is had: Samantha becomes a famous Hollywood starlet, marries a completely different journalist (what is up with this family and journalism, seriously), has a baby, but dies in childbirth. Amanda breaks her you-got-my-boyfriend-arrested-for-bootlegging-and-framed-me-for-his-arrest, well-deserved silence to say goodbye to Samantha, who dies seconds later. Amanda becomes a very dedicated aunt to baby Marjorie. Amanda never marries, because she’s a sap, and becomes an English teacher at Sweet Valley High, because she’s apparently the lame duck of her otherwise obscenely successful family.

Jack Lewis, Samantha’s husband and Marjorie’s father, has some reason or another to take his young daughter to live in France in the 1930s. I wasn’t paying attention. He disappears or is captured or goes into hiding and Marjorie, an American girl in occupied France, gets shoved into the closet of a wine cellar. Fellow refugee Sophy becomes like a sister to Marjorie, so naturally she falls in love with Sophy’s brother Jacques. He’s in the Resistance, so Marjorie becomes a wireless operator, with Jacques as her handler, up until they receive word that Sophy has been abducted by the Germans. They launch into a rescue mission exchanging Marjorie for Sophy. They get Sophy out. Jacques blows up. Sophy gives Marjorie her papers to get out of France and then jumps off a train. Marjorie is super depressed but goes to America and marries some dude who jumped out of a plane and was rescued by Marjorie’s cell, even though the two of them did not meet, near as I can tell, until their wedding. Rather than focusing on that, however, the book instead jumps ahead to future-current Wakefield matriarch Alice Robertson, daughter of Marjorie and that pilot guy, who instead spends an entire chapter recapping things that already happened in this book. Apologies to my friend Ellen, who lent this to me, because this is about the part where I threw the book against the wall.

Alice Robertson, not to be confused with Alice Larson who nearly drowned, goes to a made-up college in California in the sixties, and is pretty hippie-tastic. She is eventually worn down by the charm of super rich douchebag Hank Patman, who fakes being “for the people” to get some cred around campus and get into Alice’s pants. It works; they get engaged. But then Alice sees him sleazing around with “a friend” at a beach party and angry-swims in response. If there’s anything we’ve learned so far, it’s that if your name is Alice and you’re in the water, you are about to drown and be rescued by someone with the last name Wakefield. Enter Ned Wakefield, future-current Wakefield patriarch, prelaw, good swimmer, actual hippie. I don’t need to tell you that Alice finds out about all of Hank Patman’s misdeeds on the day of their wedding, then runs off barefoot in a wedding dress straight into the arms of Ned Wakefield. Well, I guess I just did, but you could’ve figured that out on your own, given that the entire theme here is “someone has to end up with a Wakefield” and we only had about two pages left.

And now, The Wakefield Legacy, which is not only about actual Wakefields, but all of those peripheral Wakefields you were just kinda-sorta reading about! What fun!

Total dickwad Theodore Wakefield is some kind of English nobility, the second son of the Wakefield family, whose elder brother James is about to get arranged-married to some nice rich girl to whom he is awful. Theodore yells at James about this awfulness, and James storms off from the fight on a horse. Based on what you’ve already read, guess what happens. I’ll wait.

If you guessed “someone dies on horseback,” you are correct! Theodore is now bumped up in the line to arranged-marry the nice rich girl and join the House of Lords, but he renounces his family name (but, you know, still keeps it for the next five generations and also takes his family ring, which has his family crest) and goes to America. Blah blah blah, rescues drowning girl, blah blah, typhus (but not really), blah, runs off to join the circus. I think he talks to animals or something. I hope the things he says are “why did you kill my brother”.

Theodore is still obsessing, years later, after the missing Alice, particularly after he sees young Jessamyn running around backstage at the circus (she’s like seven). He is committed to finding Alice tonight, rekindling their relationship even though he’s 99% positive Jessamyn is Alice’s daughter, meaning she is already freaking married. Half-Native American circus acrobat Dancing Wind is in love with Theodore and is kind of pissed off because just that morning, before little upstart Jessamyn started showing up and being all blond, Theodore had seemed totally into the idea of moving on and maybe getting together with Dancing Wind. To get his attention back, she decides to change her trapeze act to three flips instead of the normal two. Guess how this ends. I’ll wait.

If you guessed “circus performance goes terribly wrong,” you are correct! She doesn’t die, of course, because she’s in the family tree helpfully located at the front of the book, and Theodore hasn’t yet gotten her pregnant. But she does crash through the net and breaks her hip. She can never perform in the circus again, so Theodore decides he’ll take pity on this poor crippled minority, and they get married on a farm. Dancing Wind becomes pregnant, but she is a crippled minority, so guess how this ends. I’ll wait.

If you guessed “she gives birth to twins,” you are correct! One’s a boy and one’s a girl. If you guessed “she dies in childbirth,” you are also correct! It’s cosmic retribution for not having identical twin girls.

Enter James and Sarah Wakefield, yes, named for tragically dead James. Sarah falls in love with local apple-picker Edward Brooke, who is not a Wakefield. In a clever twist, Theodore, who ran away from home to avoid a (secondhand) arranged marriage, forbids his daughter from seeing Edward because he wants to arrange a marriage with a much richer dude. Young James dies of the flu. Sarah says screw this nonsense, and runs off to San Francisco with Edward to elope. Ask me what year it is. Go ahead. They get themselves a hotel room and are actually counting the hours until they can find the appropriate person to marry them legally, but are trapped in their hotel by earthquake, so they decide to have a marriage ceremony that literally consists of writing “we are married” on paper and then boning on the floor of their crumbling hotel room. Edward dies (post-bone, fortunately, the books aren’t that disturbed). Sarah, defeated by life and also Mother Earth, goes back home to her dad’s farm where she discovers she’s pregnant. Not a single person knows that she and Edward didn’t get legally married. Like an idiot, she decides to tell her dad the truth about her baby being illegitimate. Theodore drives her elsewhere to have her baby in private so the townspeople don’t find out, because they’ll never figure it out when she’s only gone for nine months. The townspeople are apparently stupid. Sarah is apparently stupid, as well, when she thinks that when her dad comes back for her, he’s going to take the bastard child as well. He refuses, because he is a total dickwad. Sarah runs off with baby Ted Wakefield (hey! We know him!), deciding to raise him as his aunt.

Ted grows up thinking he is a tragic orphan, which would really fit him in with this family pretty well. You know this part: he goes to college, jazz journalist, arrested by the FBI, betrayed by his true love (or so he thinks!), but then is released because the evidence wasn’t sufficient, so he goes off on a cross-country trip to find himself. He also discovers he’s not really an orphan, because Sarah is awful at keeping secrets. Ted ends up in California looking for his grandmother Dancing Wind’s tribe, which is where he comes across Julia Marks, journalist (everybody drink), and then totally illegally get information about the actual rights/land of the tribe that A Bad Man was totally illegally hiding, they almost get driven off the road, accidentally drive their would-be assassins off the road, go and attempt to rescue the would-be assassins from their fiery car, the would-be assassins get arrested, and Ted-and-Julia go east in their quest to be a Successful Journalist Team. Well, they get married and he becomes a professor or something, but Julia is totally a successful enough journalist to get sent Germany in 1937 to investigate. She communicates with Ted and son Robert via letter for awhile, before she finally makes her return trip to the States via airship. The Hindenburg made 63 flights. Guess which one this is.

Tragic half-orphan Robert Wakefield, plagued with fiery nightmares about his mother’s death, even though we don’t really talk about that, eventually lies about his age to join the Navy and fight those darn Germans. Which is about the point where he starts becoming the recipient of wireless messages from POW codename Pacific Star. Pacific Star is Hannah Weiss, trapped with four other ladies on an island by Japanese guards for like three years. Although this section is from Hannah’s perspective and she only knows her contact as Sea Eagle, he is confusingly referred to as Robert. Not that it really matters, because a few pages later, they are: “Talking in a code they had developed together over the past few months, they had managed to tell each other their real names as well as other details about their lives.” A pretty ballsy move for an operation that survives on teenage girls faking disaster every Sunday so their friend can sneak off into the trees and use a radio buried under a rock. The whole thing is suspect; it’s a wonder America won the war. In any case, Hannah gets rescued, the Germans and the Japanese are defeated, Robert finally meets Hannah and makes his commanding officer ship-marry them. They give birth to young Ned Wakefield, who is a person we know. Before he gets to rescuing what’s-her-face from drowning, he first has an ill-fated romance with a girl named Rainbow who is just faking being a hippie so pre-law Ned will help her with her law homework, so she can be successful like her conservative judge dad. Up until the part where a peaceful protest gets them all arrested, she drops the flower child act and name-drops her way out of prison, causing Ned to never love again, at least for three years, when his handsomeness breaks up an engagement. Whatever.

In conclusion, this is what you can take away from this book:
– Everyone is successful and beautiful, all the time. Unless you are mean! Then you are successful, beautiful, and a total jerkface.
– The circus is bad.
– Having twins is pretty freaking common.
– But actually giving birth is bad.
– Jessica Wakefield is 1/32nd Native American, which I feel is going to give her justification for all of the terrible things that she does, because she, too, is a minority.
– Sociopathy is a family trait.
– You only ever have one true love, so if you don’t get together with them, you are just going to marry some schmoe and keep having babies, and your babies will have babies, until one of your progeny ends up with the progeny of your one true love.
– Horses will kill you.