Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Series by Ann Brashares (Part 1)

Note: These are my thoughts on the entire series, so the discussion of each subsequent book contains spoilers for those previous but not the novel itself. For example, if you haven't read any of the series then reading my review of book 1 is safe, however the section on book 2 may provide spoilers to book 1. Be warned. 

I first fell in love with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares nearly a decade ago when it was originally released. As a young teen, I saw parts of myself in Bee, Lena, Tibby and Carmen (especially the last two). When the sequel, The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, was released, I dived right back into Brashares believable, yet slightly magical, world. Somewhere along the way, maybe distracted by high school and friends and other things, partially due to hardcover releases too expensive for a teenage budget and long library wait lists, I never finished the series. So when I learned that a fifth and final book in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series was about to be released, set ten years after the fourth book, I knew this was just the excuse to both rediscover, and delve into for the first time, these incredibly touching books.

The first book in the series, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, introduces the reader to four fifteen year old girls, born within a month of each other and friends since birth (their mothers met in a prenatal yoga class) they are about to spend their first summer apart. One of the girls, Carmen, purchases a pair of secondhand jeans without trying them on and when the girls discover that the jeans magically fit all four of them despite their very different body shapes, they know this is just the thing to keep them together during their time away. Thus, the sisterhood is born. Throughout the summer the jeans will be passed from Lena, the shy, artistic, and beautiful girl who is spending the time in Greece with her grandparents, to Tibby, the independent-minded aspiring film-maker who is stuck at home and working at Wallmans, to Carmen, feisty and passionate, who is spending the summer with her father for the first time since her parents divorced at a young age, to Bridget, an athletic and outgoing girl who lost her mother to suicide and is spending the summer at a competitive soccer camp in Mexico. As the jeans travel from sister to sister, Brashares includes letters that they write detailing their lives, and manages to capture the important moments in the lives of four very different teens.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is incredibly perceptive, and reading it again years later I can still remember the feelings that Brashares captures so perfectly, the longing to belong, to be loved, to trust, the angst and the anger and the changes that we go through as we grow up. Each of the characters have their own quirks, and even the secondary characters like Lena's sister Effie are rich and dimensional. Brashares switches smoothly from the life of one girl to another, and for a novel with multiple storylines there isn't one that I would consider boring or that I dreaded her returning to. Instead, I think the whole book in enchanting, and there are just enough twists and turns to keep you turning the page without making you doubt that this could happen in real life. When the sisters finally reunite after their summer apart, you end the book knowing that they have grown up a lot, and more than that, as a reader you feel like you have grown with them.

Next up in the series is The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, when Brashares reunites with the girls a year later and the reader finds many of them in unexpected situations. Most unexpected for me was Bridget, who has dyed her hair black and quit soccer, still reeling from her experiences with Eric the previous summer. When Bee finds letters from her Grandma that her father has been keeping hidden since her mother's death five years ago, she decides to head to Alabama with her new appearance as a disguise and see what she can learn about her mother. But learning more about her mother's life, also means that Bridget will have to remember her death. As for Tibby, she's attending a film-making workshop in Virginia, where she finally has the opportunity to connect with people with like-minded interests, but in order to belong does she have to give up part of who she really is? Carmen and Lena are both at home this summer, and both dealing with romantic dilemmas. In Carmen's case she's most concerned about the fact that her mother is dating again, and worried she will be left behind in the process, something she plans to avoid even if it means sabotaging her mom's relationship. Lena is trying to get over Kostos after breaking up with him, but despite being the one to end the relationship, she can help her jealousy when she learns Kostos may have moved on. It's another eventful summer for the girls, but no matter what happens, they know that their sisters, and the pants, will be there for them.

Reading a new book in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Series is like reuniting with old friends after too long apart. Luckily, now that the entire series has been released, I could immediately start on the second novel after finishing the first. Even though both were rereads, I still felt my heart drop when I realized how poorly Bee was dealing with loosing her virginity to Eric, and how Lena continued to deny her relationship with Kostos when it seemed like she had finally admitted her feelings for him. That's the truth in life too though, even when we want only good things to happen, sometimes things don't go according to plan- like Carmen feeling like her mother is starting a new life without her. Brashares takes the reader on the ups and downs in The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, and although like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants the novel tells a complete story, it also builds on the experiences and knowledge that has been gained in the first book. Sometimes it feels like the girls haven't really learned anything in the first book, especially Lena, but then you realize that is exactly how it works, sometimes we need to be hit over the head in order to really learn the necessary lessons and Brashares provides a perfect reminder of how important those lessons are.

In The Second Summer of the Sisterhood Lena, Tibby, Carmen and Bee are a year older, but no less relateable. Even rereading the novel in my early twenties, I recognize so much of myself in these young woman and their struggles. The story is touching and funny and unpredictable, and in some cases maybe even a bit heartbreaking. With the first two books in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Series, Brashares created a world which resonated with me when I first read it, and has no less power reading it again all these years later. Simply put, there's magic in the pants but there's also magic in the girls that wear them.

Click here for Part 2 of my reviews.

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