Strange Brouhaha

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

This is partly a tale of how I am a sucker (at times) for advertising.

If the TV is on in our house, and Kulani is home, it is a good bet that the channel is turned to The Disney Channel, Toon Disney, Nickelodeon, or Cartoon Network. (Occasionally, we will indulge in the Food Network as well.) It is very rare that there are things on the other channels that we'll be able to watch as a family, since the local PBS Kids station doesn't come in too well on the cable system and Charter really doesn't give a damn.

On these channels, there have been advertisements for a movie called "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." These advertisements are not incessant--at least I don't think they are; I am inducing ADHD in our daughter by rapidly switching channels during commercial breaks--but they are there. My thinking about them is usually along the lines of "Huh. Interesting title. SWITCH."

I try to encounter the ADHD blitz with trips to the bookstore. It used to be that Lani and I would pick out five or six books to sit and read in the store, just as a way to get out of the house for a while. Now that she can read pretty well, she picks out her own books and I try to grab one or two along the way that look interesting.

We were in the bookstore on Sunday. She was picking out her books, and I was looking around. The way our Barnes & Noble is laid out, the kids' section is pretty much all by its lonesome on a mezzanine in the corner of the store, near the used and remaindered section, so I was looking at the YA books, and lo and behold, there's an endcap display for these Pants books. Turns out there's three of them.

"What the heck," I thought, and grabbed the first one to read while Lani read her own selections.

By the time Lani was ready to go, I had read the first hundred or so pages and gotten totally sucked in. I bought the book.

No lie, it's pretty good. Ann Brashares crafted a pretty tight piece of fiction. Absolutely nothing unexpected happens, but the writing is so engaging that you pretty much don't care. Some of the stories are weaker than others--Savannah and I both found Tibby's arc to be the strongest, and Bridget's to be the weakest--but overall, Brashares keeps you wanting to see how she resolves each point. Yes, even though you KNOW how she's going to resolve them (although I was surprised once). I'm not sorry I dropped the nine bucks on it. In fact, I recommend that you look at it in a bookstore, or borrow it from the library. If you know a tween or young teenager, this would make a good gift.

(As a digression: for all that the book is well-written, I get the feeling that the movie is completely awful. The magic, really, is in the words, not in what happens to the girls. What happens to the girls is the stuff of a thousand bad movies. Really, it ought to be a crime to make a movie out of a book. Or at least some books. Although I'm curious to see how this one goes; I'll catch it on video.)

This afternoon, we went back to the bookstore. "What the heck," I thought, and grabbed the second book to read while Lani read her own selections. In the two hours we were in the bookstore, I managed to get most of the way through "The Second Summer of the Sisterhood." The writing is still good, although this time out it seemed a little forced. But there's a problem.

As I was reading the book, a little voice popped up in the back of the head: "Sara Paretsky," it said, "Sara Paretsky." Sara Paretsky is the author of the V.I. Warshawski mystery novels, and I had just read an essay by her on creating characters, and the different stories you need to construct for series versus non-series characters. The salient quote is this: "No one...can write effectively about people whose major life issues have already found some kind of resolution."

The first "Sisterhood" book pretty well resolves all of the issues it contains. The girls all learn something about themselves. Nothing is left hanging. In fact, for all that the book is well-written, I felt no curiosity about what could happen next: everything that needed to be said, had been said. When that happens, there's only one thing you can do, and that's to say it all again.

From the interview with the author at the back of the first book, here's Brashares on which member of the Sisterhood she would meet for coffee: "I think I would choose to meet Bridget. Not because I love her the most (I do love her, but it feels wrong to play favorites) but because she is the one I worry about the most. She has enormous gifts, but she also has some pretty big deficits. Because she hasn't got a mother, I think I feel more maternal toward her." This comes through loud and clear in the second book, because Bridget's is the only story that is different in any substantial way.

Tibby relearns the lesson she learned in the first book. Carmen relearns the lesson she learned in the first book. Lena relearns the lesson she learned in the first book. Only Bridget's arc is different, only Bridget has the chance to grow, to take the inward journey that the rest of the Sisterhood has already taken, and taken again.

Ultimately, while I would honestly recommend the first book as a good primer on How A Book Works, the second one needs to stay on the shelf. It's always nice to see familiar characters, but when you find yourself thinking "What, AGAIN?" it's probably time to move on.

(P.S. I am going to sit and read the third book at some point.)


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