The 'C' Word: Chick Lit, and those Traveling Pants

It’s time. I’ve stalled and stalled, but it’s time to put up my review of The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, the companion novel to Ann Brashare’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. I have to, because the third novel, Girls in Pants, is coming out, and someone needs to read and review that one, too. The problem isn’t the books, as much as the genre… yeah, I’m talking about Chick Lit.
(And NO, I don’t mean the cheerfully low concept slideshowI found on Slate, which is HYSTERICAL, but those chicks are not at all what we’re talking about.)

Go into any bookstore, and you see them: stacks and stacks and stacks of pastel books with skinny models on the covers. It’s wildly popular, and it’s everywhere. This postfeminist’s women’s marketing niche is SO trendy right now that it would be really easy to jump on the passing bandwagon, and ride. It’s now, it’s hip, and it’s a big box into which publishers are scooping all women’s literature, and labeling it. Even YA fiction for girls is being labeled and packaged into neat and attractive junior league stacks of Chick Lit. This publishing phenomenon (because you know it’s not a real writing trend, we’ve been writing about women and women’s issues for years) started in the mid-90’s, and there seems to be no end in sight. (Marketing people everywhere breathe a huge sigh of relief.)

I’m all for breathless and spunky twentysomething heroines, maintaining their professional and love lives by the skins of their teeth, having adventures and rushing all over Paris and Greece. I’m even all for neurotic protagonists, obsessing, as we all do, about our teeth, our weight, our hair, our bums, our guts, and our male friends. But I do wonder about the women who aren’t “chicks,” and about the writers who want to go a little deeper in their writing for women and young girls, who aren’t cut out for this cookie-cutter ‘Chick Lit’ thing. Is there room for any of them? Are we still allowed to write women’s literature if what we write isn’t necessarily trite? Can we imagine characters who are not emotionally stunted, gushing, ‘sassy’ or attractively eccentric? Can we write about real girls and not Barbie clones? I think so. I hope so. An article I discovered in The Utne Reader says it’s time to challenge Chick Lit. Maybe we do need to learn the difference between entertainment reading and a trite storyline. Maybe it’ll be you who changes the so-called ‘Chick Lit’ for the better.

Ann Brashares’ The Second Summer of the Sisterhood was slightly more coherent than her first book, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Many of my objections to the first novel stemmed from the use of the pants as a ‘device’ to keep a disparate group of girls in contact, and to keep the story moving among the characters. I felt like the original Sisterhood was a novel about girls of a certain class or region that was attempting to make a universal statement on girls and the friendships among them. It didn’t succeed. Can all of us really jet off to Greece? Does breaking and entering somehow become cooler because it’s a place where our mother’s did yoga when we were in utero? And then there were the niggling little racial and ethnic problems. Why is it Carmen who buys the pants? Do only Puerto Rican girls thrift shop? I think Brashares spends an inordinate amount of time on her “big mouth” and her obsession with her “big” rear end. However, because the emotional truths in the novel outweigh the very obvious convention of the pants, the reader reads on. That’s what Brashares has really captured — emotional availability in writing. Readers truly feel with each character, whatever is going on with them, and that is what saves the Pants novels, over and over again.

The Second Summer has this magic as well, and thankfully a slightly sturdier plot. Bridget is not the sex-crazed soccer player of the first novel, and is, in fact, overweight, although there is not much time spent with the idea of eating to fill an emptiness, or any of the psychological ramifications of someone gaining so much weight in so short a time. (Of course, this minor flaw in Pretty Girl Land must be allayed by the end of the book — no one would actually want her to –eww!– be really fat, or anything, but for a brief moment she flirts with that Ultimate Disaster.) Brashares allows Bridget to be anonymous as she pursues the truth about her family, and more than any of the other characters, Bridget seemed to lack a ‘need’ for the magical pants to make sense of her life. Tibby, at film school for the summer, fares less well, and waffles between being the character to whom we were introduced, and someone reeking of desperation, and over-eager for popularity. This seems a little thin to me plot-wise, as Tibby has ample opportunities to be bigger than life, as the friend of the gorgeous Lena, and the popular Bridget, at the very least. Her turning away from old friendships is surprising, and gives us less insight into her character than I wanted. It could have made more sense, with just a few more sentences about some internal process. Finally, Lena… remains Lena. Everytime Brashares reminds us of how beautiful Lena is supposed to be, I find my eyes rolling. Yes, yes, beautiful, skinny Lena, all right, enough already. Her emotional trauma over maintaining perfection and finding safety in the ‘perfect’ boyfriend feel tiresome and unbelievable, yet the Pants girls rally around her and mother her up until her flawless complexion is tear free. Puh-lease.

Unlike in the first Sisters, there seems to be less emotional energy invested in Carmen’s tale. Carmen’s first date is so important to her that it’s a little disingenuous for Brashares to have us believe that she forgets all about the boy while trying to keep her mother in line. Her fears regarding her parent ring true, as her mother begins dating, and sucks all the air out of the room while doing it, but the stereotype of the fiery Latina looms again as Carmen’s rageaholic tendencies destroy her mother’s relationship with the man she’s dating, and presents a cold war in their home. I found myself confused as to how Carmen manages to destroy everything without any adult turning a hair. I think that’s one of the major weaknesses of the entire novel series. Brashares is writing a wish fulfillment novel — adults with little control, who make obvious and avoidable mistakes, but who rally around old friendships with tears and bottles of wine. This seems the perfect foil for the Enduring Friendship motif that goes along with the Pants. Aren’t you tearing up yet? It’s like Beaches for a new millennium. Yeeuch.
What? You’re ready to throw something? Okay. Fine. I know A. Fortis maybe has a difference of opinion with me regarding these books. I know there’s going to be dissention in the ranks about them, so I will say this before I duck: YES, I enjoyed some parts of both novels. YES, I believe in women’s friendships, and I think this book presented a facet of the jewel that makes them priceless. I do, however, also long for someone to write a novel about a girl who does better being friends with boys, and who wears HIS jeans, and plays football with him, and listens to his boring talks about the girl he likes without a.) liking the girl herself, or b.) feeling pangs for the boy, but I guess I might have to write that myself, since it won’t quite be ‘Chick Lit.’

All right, all right. You know you have something to say. Let’s hear it.

About the author

tanita s. davis is a writer and avid reader who prefers books to most things in the world, including people. That's ...pretty much it, she's very boring and she can't even tell jokes. She is, however, the author of eight books, including Serena Says, Partly Cloudy, and the Coretta Scott King honored Mare's War. Look for the new MG, Go Figure, Henri Weldon in 1/2023 from Katherine Tegen Books.

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