Monday, January 29, 2007


This weekend I went on a Pants spree. I skimmed The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, reread The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, and finally finished Girls In Pants. All of this in preparation for Forever In Blue, which I snatched up gleefully when I found it at Costco two weeks ago. My family probably thought I had my nose stuck in the same book from Friday night through Sunday night, but it was the entire series.

First off, let me say that I love these books. This is one of my favorite series out there. I'm completely amazed at how author Ann Brashares is able to weave the stories of four different young women in such a way that I care about all of them, I never get bored and wish she'd jump to someone else, and at the end of each POV break, I'm left wanting more. Her ability to pull this off is the reason I picked up the books for a reread in the first place: I'm attempting to weave three stories together and I wanted to see how a master handled such a feat.

I also loved the movie. I thought it a fairly decent adaptation, I cried (I cried reading the books too, which almost never happens to me), found it well casted and I'm hoping that disappointing box office doesn't keep the powers that be from making movies out of at least the second and third books.

All this being said, I have to admit that after reading book 4, I can firmly see the difficulty in taking a group of high school girls and following them for four years of their lives without becoming repetitive. As much as people change from age 16 through age 19, their lives are still pretty small. You reach a point when you start to think, hey, haven't we done this already?

From here on, there are SPOILERS for all of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books.

For those of you familiar and interested (the rest of you probably left this post a while back), here's a brief update. At the end of the last book, the four pseudo-sisters had gone their separate ways to attend college. Forever In Blue (FIB) picks up at the beginning of the summer after their freshman year. Due to various activities, the girls are still scattered. Lena is in Rhode Island attending a summer art program; Tibby is in NYC attending a summer film program; Carmen is in Vermont attending a summer theater program; and Bridget is off in Turkey, participating in a archeological dig for - you guessed it - a school credit program. I don't know where these girls get their stamina. By the end of my freshman year, I was happy to head home for some free laundry service, a fridge stocked with non-cafeteria food and a chance to party with catch up with some old friends. Not to mention my small need to hold down a full-time job to earn some cash to pay for the next year's tuition.

But I digress.

Carmen has gained the dreaded Freshman 10. Or in her case, more like the Freshman 15, so she doesn't want the other three sisters to see her. She's come to see that having three built-in best friends for your entire life means that those friend-making skills tend to atrophe during the growing up years, and she's no longer the fiesty, sexy, outspoken girl we've come to know and love. Rather, she's self-destructive, dumpy and desperate. Not a pretty combination.

Bridget leaves boyfriend Eric and her emotionally neglectful father and emotionally abused and bereft twin brother to head to Turkey so she can dig in the dirt. She meets and appreciates - as would be expected - a very hot, very interested young professor who seems equally taken with her. Except, well, he's married. Yeah. Married.

Lena is trying hard to forget Kostos. Or maybe she's trying hard to remember Kostos. Or she's trying to forget to remember him or trying to remember to forget him. I got kind of confused. Anyway, she meets a fellow art student who is super talented and doesn't seem to fall all over himself just because she's beautiful, which is a double-scoop turn on for sweet Lena. Because neither of them have any money, they agree to pose for each other so they can each finish the necessary portfolios for next year's scholarships. And you all know, right, that art students look at nude models when they paint and draw? So Lena has to get, um, well nude...

Tibby and Brian finally do the deed. It's sweet. It's romantic. It's natural. The two have known each other for four years, have been dating for two, are both over the age of consent, and pretty much I can't figure out what they are still waiting for at this point. Brian agrees with me and finally Tibby gets a clue. Except, the condom? Well, she breaks. And Tibby? Well, she freaks.

I've come to really like these four girls, so I was very much interested to see how their next summer played out. But not too far into the book, I began to get a little frustrated. Because I felt like I'd read all of these stories before. I felt like these girls, who were 16 when I first started hanging with them and are now nearly 20, hadn't really changed one iota. They were making the same mistakes as they'd already done, only this time they didn't have the excuse of being just a kid and not knowing any better.

For example, although Bridget has learned to control her outrageous sexual magnetism and doesn't turn it full-force on Off-limits Professor the way she did in Book 1 with Off-limits Soccer Coach, she still allows their relationship to get physical (I won't say more). And even if Bridget has learned something about playing with fire and getting burned, I felt like I've read this story before. I've already seen Bridget tempting men with her gorgeous hair, wanting someone she shouldn't and/or couldn't have, and the results of this sad, can't-end-well situation. I wanted to see something new.

And Tibby. Well, for most of the book I wanted to smack Tibby upside the head. Yes, the condom broke. Yes, she was scared shitless about being pregnant, and with good reason. But the way she treated Brian, the boy she supposedly loved, made me ill. She was cruel and nasty and pretty much a total bitch, and for no reason that I can understand. I can't say much more without spoiling the book, but if I were Brian? No chance in hell.

I found Lena's story the most compelling. She seemed to be moving on after Kostos dumped her for the woman he'd impregnated during a one-night stand. She'd met this boy, Leo, and she'd stepped outside of her comfort zone. She'd glimpsed something that she wanted, a lifestyle that appealed to her, and finally seemed to be heading towards something rather than drifting aimlessly. But then she took a couple mile-wide steps backwards. And by the end of the book, I felt like someone had pulled a Bobby Ewing on me. Not to mention, what the hell happened to Paul? By the end of Book 2, I was thinking Lena and Paul were true Soul Mates. Where did that go?

As for Carmen, well, I don't think Carmen was in this book. Somehow, the girl named Carmen from books 1 through 3 - the girl who bratted her parents nearly out of their new relationships and couldn't think about anyone other than her own selfish-self - has been devoured by an insecure, overeating wallflower who is so desperate for friendship she latches on to a barracuda the rest of us could identify from 50 paces while blindfolded and drunk. I kind of understood the motivation behind Carmen's withdrawal into a completely different personality given that for the first time in her life, she had to make new friends, but I found it forced to a degree that surpassed belief.

Here's the problem I see facing Brashares, and any writer of a long-running series about teenagers for that matter. If you tune in for the romance, you are bound to be disappointed. I have no idea what the statistics are, but I believe that very few relationships that begin when a person is a teenager last into adulthood. First love and all of that. Heck, college is the death of most high school sweethearts. I met my husband at college, but we were both juniors and had some dating experience under our belts by then. So when you read a happy ending in a YA book, you kind of mentally leave a little loophole for the relationship to be only a temporary HEA, since they aren't grown ups yet and we don't much go for the whole child-bride scenario.

But when Bridget finally hooks up with Eric (in book 3) and Tibby finally gets how great Brian is (in book 3) you want these crazy kids to last forever. Brashares did such a great job selling their respective romances, you're ready for the HEA. Since Tibby and Bee are only 18, you give them their loopholes and figure you'll never know how it really ends up. You can live the rest of your life in blissful ignorance, assuming that it's Eric + Bridget and Brian + Tibby 4-Ev-R.

Except, there's another book. So you do find out what happens. And it's not what you want to happen because it's not a YA book unless the protagonists angst. So either you break them up in some random, it just kind of fizzled out way (which is how Carmen's fledgling relationship with Win is handled) or you have them do something stupid (Bridget) or inexplicable (Tibby).

Conversely, if you ride the realism wave like Brashares did with Lena - Kostos was her first love, but it wasn't meant to be, no HEA for them - then you need to let your characters move on. Lena begins to move on. We are sad that she didn't find forever love with Kostos, but that's okay because she's very young and Leo is cute and we want that to work out. Not to mention all those sparks between Lena and Paul in Book 2 that offered up so much promise. But then you can't throw Kostos back into the mix. That's not fair. Not to Lena and not to us readers.

I think my reaction to this fourth book is a case of needing a story to end when it's over rather than resurrecting it just for the sake of a series. I do really like these girls, and I would love to keep reading about them. But not if their problems are exactly the same, book after book. I don't find this entertaining. I find it annoying because then these people become stupid, unable to grow and learn from their mistakes. Or they become Bizarro characters (a la Carmen) who no longer act true to the person I first came to know.

A lot of this book had the girls focusing on how unworthy they were; to be loved, to be noticed, to have a family, to fall in love again. I don't mind a little self-doubt now and again, but after a while it gets tedious. Too much navel gazing and not enough action. How many times I wanted to yell "Snap out of it!" I can't count.

Too, I think Brashares dances around the subject of teen sexuality with a wariness that borders on the extreme. For these girls, having sex generally results in severely negative consequences. Bridget suffers a near mental breakdown after her encounter with Eric in Book 1, and Tibby goes completely loco after having sex with Brian, complete with pregnancy scare. Many times in FIB Lena fights with her attraction to Leo, the issue of her virginity brought up more than once. For these girls, having sex represents the end of everything good and innocent in their lives rather than a gift they've finally become mature enough to enjoy. I found that incredibly sad. I could buy it for Bridget at age 16, but not so much for Tibby at nearly-19.

Not that I advocate rampant teenage sex, mind you. I'm a firm believer that such a grown up act requires a grown up attitude and grown up emotions. In fact, I would have much preferred Brashares exploring that aspect using Tibby and Brian's relationship. In the beginning, Brian wants more but Tibby is reluctant. I would have liked to see how she overcame that, how the two of them together decided to handle their growing physical relationship. Instead we got twenty choruses of Tibby's inability to let people get close to her and how she pushes them away once they do.

To Brashare's credit, there was a scene between Eric and Bridget that did, IMO, capture a realistic encounter between two people at this stage in their lives. It gave me hope that these girls will work out all of their issues eventually. Although after the way Tibby reacted, I don't know if she should ever attempt to have sex with anyone ever again.

I'll go back to say that I did like this book. It was well written. I cared about the characters all the way until the very end, and I was sad to let them go after the last page. But something about this left me wanting. Perhaps it's just my sad realization that I have to say goodbye to Carmen, Lena, Tibby and Bridget because their stories have already been told.

I got the feeling by the way the book ended that Brashares agrees.

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