Saturday, 18 November 2006

Girls in Pants, Ann Brashares

GIRLS IN PANTS: The Third Summer of the Sisterhood Ann Brashares, Random House, 2005, 338 pages, paperback, NZ$18.95 ISBN 1-74051-993-0

Secure and Loved

It is odd that a gentle series of novels about four friends growing up secure and loved should be denounced as containing ‘little of substance’. Yet The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants series was one of a group of novels Alexis Stuart denounced last year (Press, 2 Nov 2004) as ‘charged with rage’, having only ‘crude insight into parenthood’ and ‘lacking inspiring models of conduct’.

Bridget, Carmen, Tibby and Lena are four friends, whose mothers, as Tibby says, ‘raised us more like a litter of puppies, than as actual individual children.’ When changes in their families’ lives force them apart, the four friends determine to keep in touch, and a pair of jeans pants become the symbol of their sisterhood. Carmen had bought the pants at an op-shop and the four, amused to find that they are a good fit for all of them, bring out the pants every summer and take turns wearing them.

Girls in Pants, the third novel in the series, sees the girls moving from shared childhood to young adulthood, as they graduate from high school and prepare for college and dorm life in different cities.

Not much happens during their summer holidays – part-time jobs, baby-sitting, rafting and decision-making about college. Lena gains an awareness of her abilities as an artist, Bridget shows leadership and sorts out her on-off friendship with Eric, Carmen accepts that her mother’s remarriage will change their relationship but not their love, and Tibby learns to face the future.

What is important is that each of them gains confidence in their human relationships, learning to care for other people, even unlovely people like Lena’s Greek grandmother Valia. (Carmen is shrewd enough to spot that although Valia is using her wheelchair-bound state to exercise power, she really wants to return to Greece.)

Anna Brashare has a light touch as an author. She chronicles the Sisterhood’s friendship, family ties, the arrival of first love and the search for boys who are truly ‘worthy’, in a way that is positive and caring. I particularly enjoyed her depiction of Brian, who was a geek with a golden heart in the first book but ‘grows to six feet two, gets his dental hygiene together, accidentally breaks his hideous glasses and morphs into a virtual heartthrob before your eyes.’ Brashares is often witty; Tibby’s hair has ‘launched a thousand comments.’

Above all these novels celebrate the gentle pleasures of friendship. ‘To brave the undertow’, says Tibby, ‘we had learned to hold hands.’ This is not the Little Women of the 21st Century but it’s as close as we’re going to get to it.

Trevor Agnew (who has three sisters and four daughters: all friends)

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on March 26 2005

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