Books are quite literally my kryptonite. There is nothing I love more than walking down the aisle in a library or bookstore and seeing the hundreds of stories at my fingertips. But as I started growing older and viewing my world in a more critical way, I was able to apply that same perspective to the books I would read. In a society where women are still treated as second-class citizens, no matter how subtly, I was suddenly searching for contradictions to that in the literary worlds I encountered. I happily discovered that yes, female characters in these books reflected the strength I found in different women I knew from my own life. Whether the setting is a dystopian society of the future or a lazy summer from just a few decades ago, there are so many works of literature that feature the kind of empowering woman I not only aspire to be but also see in the real world on a daily basis. So this series is dedicated to them – to those women who rush by me on the street to get to their second job; the ones whose families refuse to support them on their way to success because they don’t understand their ambition; and to you, the young women poised to take charge of their accomplishments without regret.
With fall well on its way, what better book to start with than one based on memorable experiences of summer? The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares is an amazing start to a series based on four very different young girls as they navigate young adulthood. The all too familiar feeling of being caught in a moment where everything is on the brink of changing sets the tone for what is meant to be a transformative summer. Aptly nicknamed the Septembers because of their birthdays, Carmen, TIbby, Lena and Bridget have grown up spending all their time together. Yet this is the first summer they spend apart and for Carmen especially, this is becomes more difficult to understand.
Though they are the oldest sibling in their own families, each of the Septembers holds a different role in their circle: Tibby is the anti-conformist; Lena, the introverted painter; Bridget, the fearless athlete; and Carmen, the creative writer. Perhaps because Carmen is the youngest in her group of friends, she feels the most impacted by the different routes this summer is taking them. It was her desire that they take a pair of pants that magically fit each girl on their trips in hopes of keeping a piece of one another even in their time apart. Her summer journey takes her to South Carolina for some quality time with her mostly absent father. After her parents separated when she was a child, Carmen tried her hardest to be a daughter that her father would be proud of. The desire to be the best in the eyes of a parent is something I’m sure many young children can understand, and this summer was supposed to be Carmen’s biggest opportunity to show her father what he was missing.
Of course, things don’t go according to plan when Carmen realizes her father has become engaged to a woman with two seemingly perfect children of her own. Soon her father is breaking tennis dates with Carmen to deal with wedding details crises and cheering on his future son at soccer games. All of these appear to be normal family problems, which is why the books are so meaningful. These stories sound like my friends in high school, even my own family situation to an extent. It is profoundly beautiful in its simplicity. From this moment on we see Carmen at an uncomfortable bridesmaid dress fitting, made even more awkward because her full figure comes from her mother’s Puerto Rican heritage. Rewind a little and we see at the beginning of the novel that even within her own group of friends, Carmen feels isolated; she fears the pants won’t fit over her thighs and she didn’t want to be “the big fatso”. Like many of us when faced with a difficult situation, Carmen literally runs away from the bridal store, expecting her father to notice her absence and being painfully disappointed when he fails to do so.
In her explanations to her mother and even Tibby, Carmen cannot understand why they would assume she’s mad at her father when she actually blames his new family. In her anger, she pushes Tibby away but ends up coming to the conclusion that she cannot admit any negative feelings towards her father. When I was a high school student reading this, this particular moment struck a nerve inside me. The difference was, however, that I could not stand up to my friends. I never had a problem speaking up for myself among my family, because I knew they would always be there for me regardless. The nervous heartbeats and trembling hands came whenever I had to assert myself to someone else, someone I didn’t know wouldn’t stay mad at me forever. This is exactly what Tibby reveals to Carmen when Carmen says she has no problem being mad at her friends – “Maybe, sometimes, it's easier to be mad at the people you trust because you know they'll always love you, no matter what.” This trust is something that, try as she might, Carmen was never able to develop with her father. The more she thought about it, the more Carmen realized there was so much she was holding back in an effort to have a happy relationship with her father. Being somewhat passive aggressive myself, I had to really reflect on what I personally was scared of when confronting other people.
Carmen took the time to consider that maybe there was something she herself was doing wrong, and in this way she managed to exude a quieter strength than what she expected. Sometimes there is this idea of how we expect courage to manifest, that it should be in your face and glaringly obvious as a feat of bravery. Occasionally, it is. But more often than not, it's that quiet shift we feel within ourselves when something significant happens. Carmen felt that shift, and finally decided to act on it. She called her father and finally told him that she resented him for finding a family he preferred over her. Her father apologized but Carmen knew that the words would only matter if they both changed their behavior. So along with the help of her friends, she drove up for her father's wedding and stood by his side in those traveling pants. While the pants themselves did not change Carmen as a person, it helped for all of the girls to believe that a force greater than they could imagine was a witness to their transformative journeys. This belief is told in many different ways and in all kinds of stories. The beauty of this narrative in particular comes from how deeply rooted it is in our daily reality while never forgetting the existence of that special magic they feel lives in a pair of blue jeans.