Books can be a lot like romantic love interests. If they catch us at the right time and the right head space in life, they have the chance to capture your heart forever. Stumble upon them a few years down the road, and any interest in them is akin to out-of-character insanity.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I visited a high-school friend in Madison in a fit of pre-adulthood panic, trying to recapture some nostalgic feeling of an adolescence that I hadn’t even personally experienced. It was a weekend of noodles, cheap beer, and my first introduction to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. In that slim young-adult novel, I seemed to find all of those by-proxy feelings I had been longing to discover: first loves, eternal friendships, relatively mundane adventures that still felt character shaping and unique. I devoured each new book that came out, even as I moved on to a world that looked distinctly different from the sunny-if-dramatic life of my beloved Sisterhood characters. Reading their stories always brought back to me a sense of youthful hope, a surefooted excitement that my life was out there. Re-reading the series always managed to erase, if just for a few hours, the fact that I was paying for car insurance by working at a Target deli and had lost touch with my Madison friend.
Although I re-read the series yearly for pick-me-ups, I hadn’t actually followed any new developments, figuring that the fourth book had put enough of a button on the stories that no more would be forthcoming. I discovered my mistake at the best possible time: last winter, while suffering from a particularly gruesome bout of quarter-life crisis, I stumbled upon news that there was now a fifth book, set ten years after the ending of the fourth. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say I raced to my nearest book store, bought it, and quickly curled up into a chair, book, wine, and bowl of popcorn in hand, ready to cry and then be ultimately uplifted.
Instead, I threw the book at the wall. A lot.
I will go ahead and set the spoiler tags here. If you skip down two paragraphs to the end of the spoiler tag, the rest of the review will discuss the book’s issues spoilers free. You have been warned.
One of our principal Sisters of the aforementioned Sisterhood dies. She dies relatively early on, and part of me wanted so desperately to give the author kudos for having a death that was realistic, truly shocking, and free of any of the treacly tropes we usually associate with character deaths. Unfortunately, the author undermines her own point by spending the rest of the story playing those tropes completely straight. She replaces a deathbed confession with a death scavenger hunt; the death is teased as a potential suicide whenever the plot pot needs a little more dramatic stirring. Any resonance and introspection that could be developed as the three remaining friends mourn and come to grips with the tragedy is instead shoehorned (and at times shoved) in by controlling letters from beyond the grave alongside awkward exposition.
Death seems to give one of the Sisters not only an extreme control complex (not allowing her friends to open their letters until very specific points in time, for example), but clairvoyance as well, as she not only correctly calls every single one of her friend’s reactions to her death but tells them how they should be mourning instead. The death becomes nothing but an overwrought contrivance to bring the Sisters back together in something that’s supposed to resemble the lives she envisioned for them.
<HERE ENDETH THE SPOILERS>
One of the biggest charms and yet ongoing frustrations with the Sisterhood books is that these characters are meant to be bonded and connected to each other in deep, enduring friendships, and yet the books always strive to separate them, geographically and emotionally. In the past, the series got around the “show not tell” problem of asking us to invest in friendships we the reader never fully witnessed through the Traveling Pants. The pants were the friendship from a reader’s point of view, a point even lampshaded by the characters themselves. The journey of discovering the Pants, connecting through them, and ultimately accepting their loss is what drew the Sisterhood together. (If the reveal that the fourth book closed with the Pants disappearing was a surprise to you, I apologize, but you may want to brush up on your treacly symbolic tropes.)
Take it as a bad sign, then, that come the fifth book, the Pants are nowhere to be seen. The Sisterhood is once again geographically and emotionally splintered, but now there is almost nothing but emotional shrapnel tying them all together. Again, part of me wants to give credit for resisting what must have been a fierce urge to deus ex machina the Pants back into the hands of the Sisterhood—they could have easily served as a way to spiritually draw the friends together and cover the seams of what seem like otherwise flimsy friendships, as they did in previous books. Refusing to let even a back pocket of the worn blue jeans pop up in fan service was a bold move, after giving the Pants such a beautiful and touching exit.
That exit, though, is also partially the problem. If the Pants can’t come back, then really, can the Sisterhood? Having one without the other in the final (oh please let it be the final) novel feels hollow. The end of the Pants saw the Sisterhood finally unified, arms around each other and gazing hopefully out into the sunset; to then continue a story without them and revisit the same geographic place with such large absences feels akin to a betrayal.
Speaking of betrayal, book met wall most frequently whenever I came across a passage that made me wonder if any of the characters had been lobotomized in the intervening years. While all of the Sisterhood books dealt with romantic love stories in each of the four heroine’s plot lines, I found it refreshing as a young adult that none of them seemed to bash me over the head with the idea that marriage and babies were the only things making life worth living. These were young women with talents, drives, and ambitions beyond marriage and child rearing. The love stories were sweet and sentimental, with just enough authenticity that my teeth didn’t rot while I read them. Yet enter Sisterhood Everlasting, and three out of the four are still with or pining for their high-school boyfriends a decade out, a fact stretching credibility to the breaking point. Not only that, but grand ambitions have now been whittled away to tolerable pastimes; none of them seem particularly thrilled with their jobs. The only one who seems at all ambitious is Carmen, and she is roundly criticized for this trait throughout the book. (SPOILER: She is also ultimately punished as the only member of the Sisterhood without a suggestion of romantic love by the end of the story. Lie to me, take a bunch of my money, and disappear for months, and I’ll still love you. Care about your job, however, and you deserve to be with an emotionally abusive creep and to be portrayed as shallow and flighty. END SPOILER) First she cares about her job, and next thing you know, she’ll be wearing pants and demanding the vote! Nope, the only thing worthy of any passion or attention is getting a good man, and getting down to the baby making.
Now don’t get me wrong; I hope for children myself. I’m one of the few fans of the Babies Ever After trope. Understand, then, just how grating the topic of babies must have been in this novel to set my nerves on edge. Babies, in Sisterhood Everlasting, are miraculous, life-changing vessels of wisdom. Don’t know how to be an adult? Here’s a baby—you’ll be a bona fide natural mother in no time, despite having displayed absolutely no interest in children throughout the entire series! You show aversion to or discomfort with children? Don’t worry, wandering within a five-foot radius of one in this book will instantly change your mind about any and all life decisions! Teenage self-indulgence ultimately corrected by compassion and platonic love in the previous books curdles here into selfish, reckless, and petty behavior, redeemed only once the characters realize what’s really important in life (hint: it’s babies.)
What really killed the book for me, though, is ironically what also made me love the series in the first place: its unflinching, unwavering ability to reduce me to a blubbering mess. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has always been a “good cry” series, the kind of books you pick up when you just need to release all of your emotions out through your eyeballs. You don’t go looking for authenticity when you read about the first time Lena and Kostos break up. You read it with full awareness that every moment is expertly yanking on your heart strings. I knew I was being played during every single ninja-cutting-onions scene, and that was okay. I could excuse the temporary manipulation because I knew what was waiting on the other side: hope and love and a pair of pants that fit really well.
There are some subjects, however, that such sentimental titillation can’t (or maybe shouldn’t) touch. Once that line in the sand has been crossed, and there is no going back, there are certain things that can’t be handled with the same hopeful naïveté. A good cry after reading about a first heartbreak scene is refreshing and freeing, but how do you have a good cry about some of the events in this book? How do you examine the stories with even a vaguely critical eye and not feel as manipulated and led around as the characters? The earlier books dealt with bittersweet topics that are regarded as universal “growing up” experiences (first heartbreak, first adult triumph, insecurity, the fracturing of friendships). The intended good cry in this book, though, is a topic so intensely private and singular I sure hope most people can’t relate to it. I myself was too busy processing my own emotions to feel any strong connection to these characters I’ve loved for years. The tears didn’t feel good anymore. They were full of grief and pain, in such insurmountable quantities no amount of sunsets and Babies Ever After could ultimately erase them.
This isn’t a book for a good cry, but it is a great book for a punch to the gut.