Ann Brashares’ quartet of books about Lena, Carmen, Bridget, and Tibby, the self-named Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, formed a huge part of my teenage years. They came out while I was in middle and high school, and all of my close friends also read them. Like any circle of teenage girls, we compared ourselves to these characters, and our situations to theirs. We gamely tried to find a pair of jeans that fit all of us, and when that failed, we gleefully realized that I had a black wrap-around dress that did, in fact, look good on all three of us. These four books, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood, and Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood are as comfortable and familiar to me as, if you’ll forgive the pun, a well-worn pair of blue jeans.
In a week of exhausting packing, returning to these books was a real delight. I’ve read them all several times before, but not for several years, so they were familiar without being memorized. They’re young adult books, rather than the literary fiction I’ve tended to read lately, so I found them light and quick. It was nice not to tackle anything intellectually challenging after a day of stress and physical work. Packing, of course, is a lot more wearying than it sounds. Now that I’m an adult, reading classics and other more challenging literature, I noticed the simplicity of Brashares’ writing more than I used to, and was often mildly perturbed by her insistence on spelling out metaphors and messages, rather than allowing readers to notice the parallels themselves. But then, these books were never intended to be “great literature.” They don’t lend themselves well to deep analysis. Instead, they were intended to explore the changing lives, loves, and friendships of a group of girls as they navigate high school and their entrance into college. As their families, love lives, and experiences change, not always for the better, the girls find themselves able to manage grief, jealousy, anger, fear, and other complicated emotions because of the friendships they share with each other. It’s a nice image for teens, and I fully expect that if I have a daughter someday, I will share these books with her as soon as she’s old enough for some of the adult situations these girls encounter.
What are some of these situations? you may ask, if you haven’t read these books before. Lena, the beautiful Greek girl, falls in love with an older boy, and the two take turns breaking each other’s hearts. Deciding that drawing is her passion, she faces off with her father, who refuses to allow Lena to attend art school. Carmen, the Puerto Rican daughter of divorced parents, struggles with anger, jealousy, and self-image issues as both her mother and father remarry and her family continually evolves. Bridget, the headstrong blonde soccer player, deals with her mother’s suicide by plunging herself into romantic relationships too intense for her to handle. And Tibby, the introverted filmmaker with two very young siblings, has trouble allowing her true emotions to show through as she faces the death of a friend and a pregnancy scare. Realistically, these four girls collectively face more issues than most sets of high school friends. But reading about this wide variety of situations can be a huge help to a teenage girl who might face one herself or might need to support a friend going through something traumatic. Growing up is hard, and Brashares has such a tremendous sympathy for the trials of figuring out who you are and your place in the world. Above all, her novels remind readers that troubles can always be overcome with the support and love of family and friends.