*WARNING: Sisterhood Everlasting begins with a major, surprising event, and I discuss it in this review. Other potential spoilers are marked.*
It's always dicey when an author pushes a series past its logical conclusion. I met each YA sequel to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants with skepticism, but all four of Ann Brashares' complex, sentimental tomes won me over, as did her three separate books. After seven respectable novels, one failure should not seem shocking.
But what a failure it is. I found Sisterhood Everlasting abhorrent.
The novel begins with Lena, Carmen, Bridget, and Tibby at age twenty-nine. Lena teaches art at her alma mater in Rhode Island; Carmen is in New York with a supporting role in a major TV show; Bridget is temping and lives with her still-boyfriend, Eric, in San Francisco; Tibby... well, no one knows. Tibby and her still-boyfriend, Brian, moved to Australia two years earlier and have barely been in touch. Then, out of nowhere, the other three receive plane tickets to Greece from Tibby, begging them to come together for a reunion.
Even before tragedy strikes, there is a palpable sense of dread in the text. The point of view jumps back and forth between Bridget, Lena, and Carmen as they wait for Tibby in Greece; it's impossible not to wonder why Tibby's voice is absent, and it doesn't take long to learn the truth. Tibby has drowned in the Greek water. Perhaps worst of all, she has left a note suggesting suicide.
Brashares will receive much hate mail for this development alone, and I understand the sentiment. Killing off a character readers have been loving for ten years will never be a popular move.
Still, could the book have recovered from this seemingly senseless act? Perhaps, but it did not. In addition to her main note, Tibby has left numerous letters to each of her friends (though not her family or partner), each sealed with a "Do not open until" date. Lena begins her letters, which are fixated on setting her up with her manipulative ex, Kostos; Bridget flees her home to work through the trauma alone; Carmen tries to forget it all and plan her upcoming wedding.
When two adult sequels to popular young adult series are released in one year, people are bound to draw comparisons, even when the series are as different as Sweet Valley High and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Brashares' books have always taken themselves seriously in content and writing, as opposed to the pulpy melodrama of the Wakefield twins. Sisterhood Everlasting, though, shares at least one unfortunate trait with Sweet Valley Confidential: Despite the "Ten Years Later" tags (complete with purposeful ellipses), the characters have not matured one bit.
In fact, the members of the sisterhood have dramatically regressed. Lena, who spent the series working through her shyness and timidity, is now terrified of speaking to anyone, be it a stranger or a member of her family. Lest we not understand that at first, nearly every passage from Lena's point of view is about her refusing to connect with people who want to talk. Sensitive, confused Carmen is far removed from her own emotions, especially when someone is treating her badly or vice versa. The reader is meant to believe this is because Carmen is too distracted by her iPhone. Seriously.
And then there's Bridget, the impulsive athlete who has been my favorite character since the beginning. Bridget alone appears to be thriving prior to Tibby's death. After it occurs, her depression is triggered, especially considering her memories of her mother's suicide. Her emotionally volatile state is the only engaging force in the book, until—well, we'll get there.
The only one who appears to have matured between nineteen and twenty-nine is Tibby. Actually, that's less "matured" and more "been replaced by a completely unrelated personality." We never see through her eyes, but I cannot imagine Tibby, the cynical faux-rebel, becoming someone who writes her friends endless chains of flowery, mysterious letters demanding that they change the courses of their lives once she's gone.
In short, this is not a novel to visit if you just miss the Septembers. As for the story... er, what story? One of the most accomplished angles of each of the Traveling Pants books was its inclusion of four complete journeys, one for each main character. In Sisterhood Everlasting, the remaining three characters only react to Tibby's death. What semblance of plot there is could easily have fit into 50 pages. To boot, the eventual denouement around Tibby's backstory manages to be both obvious and nonsensical.
The business of Lena and Kostos is especially insufferable. Tibby and Bridget having stuck with their high school sweethearts is unusual, but a brilliant professor like Lena spending each day missing the guy she dated at fifteen is effing absurd. Traveling Pants has always been a little too preoccupied with hetero love interests, and Sisterhood Everlasting manifests the "women need men to be happy" myth at its most insulting degree.
*SPOILERS coming up. To help you skip them (if you wish to), they're bordered with pictures of happier times.*
Bridget's arc, such that it is, quickly becomes too problematic not to discuss here.
As I said, someone as passionate and restless as Bridget spending her entire twenties with a blank slate like Eric is hard to believe. After all, she thought about finding another partner after just one year in the fourth book, Forever in Blue. Perhaps that's why I have an easier time buying that she would run away to find herself than I do most of Everlasting's plot devices. But, lo: After she runs away, she finds out that she's pregnant... because she was too irresponsible to replace her birth control, natch.
Bridget has never wanted children and is still haunted by the ways in which her mother, who was much like her, neglected her. She immediately asks for an abortion, but the nurse tells Bridget she needs to think about it more first. (Hmm, where have we heard that before? Puzzlingly, the nurse is painted as a sympathetic saint instead of the condescending douche-a-roo she is.) Soon afterward, Bridget ends up being asked to babysit.
Oh, goodie. If you think you smell the happily-childfree-woman-does-a-180-after-five-minutes-near-a-kid trope, you're right. Heaven forbid a female character know what's best for herself without intervention. That's not even the worst part, nor is the wasted opportunity to show that beloved characters can get abortions, too. Take a look at the language around Bridget's abrupt turnaround:
Bridget had thought maybe when faced with the daily tribulations of an actual child she would understand it better, what Tibby and [her mother] had done. But she didn't. She understood it less. Every day she spent with [the child she was babysitting] the mystery grew darker.
How could you have done it?
And because she was not completely without shame or self-awareness, Bridget thought of the thing in her uterus, not a thing but a person, a soul, and she felt chastened. Just look what she was willing to do. Had been willing to do.
Wow. Insisting that fetuses are people with souls, saying women who would get abortions are "without shame or self-awareness," and comparing ending a pregnancy to being a parent who commits suicide. The message is not ambiguous, and it doesn't just shatter the illusion that Brashares is feminist-friendly; it makes me nervous about the rest of her beliefs.
For one, my biggest pet peeve about the Traveling Pants series has long since been its total lack of queer characters, despite a huge supporting ensemble. (Brashares' first adult novel, The Last Summer (of You and Me), had an asexual character, but let's just say there were problems there.) This absence only becomes more troubling in the face of a blatant conservative moral.
And so it is that even my Bridget is utterly wrecked in Sisterhood Everlasting.
Perhaps Sisterhood Everlasting's "adult" classification will cause Traveling Pants fans to miss it. (Incidentally, why is it adult instead of YA? The characters may be older, but the writing style is identical. I guess the word "fuck" appears a few times.) I, for one, hope to forget this novel as soon as possible.