I've been struggling to think of how to review this book on Goodreads, and I realized that's because this franchise has been a part of my heart for so long that I need to start with something much, much longer and more rambling to explain our history.
I started the quartet in January 2005 (age 18) and finished it in June 2009, and for roughly the last 9 years I've been planning to do a reread (in part so that I can get to Sisterhood Everlasting with a clear memory of what happened before). Finally, finally, this summer's Mike Vogel renaissance drove me to it. And now, book 1 has been successfully reread!
Full, unmarked spoilers ahead.
To rehash/recap: I finally managed said reread because I wanted to rewatch the movie upon realizing he was in it, and specifically playing Eric -- more on that later -- but since I know I loved both the book and the adaptation, I thought this would be a nice, rare chance to guarantee myself a good way to see a book I love come to life. As long as I refreshed my memory of the book first.
Setting the Stage
in a truly ridiculous set of events, I own the adult sequel on audiobook (library sale), I own the 4th book in hard copy and audiobook (library sale x2), and I own the third book...but despite all the years I've been at book sales, I've been insistently waiting on a good-condition edition of books 1 and 2, and as they have never lived up to my standards -- paperbacks always creased and wrinkled, hardcover dust jackets always torn, and I think I loved this book enough at one time that I didn't want an ex-library copy -- I somehow don't own either one. Minor nerve-wracking moment when I realized I'd need to request them!
Thank heavens it's still popular enough to be stocked at the library, in multiple copies even, but not popular enough for all copies to be checked out.
Story Background Time
I can't remember exactly why I originally decided to read the book, nor why it took me over 3 years from publication to do so or if I'd heard of it prior to the movie being made, but I feel like the latter definitely influenced my decision because I can't remember ever picturing anyone else for Carmen or Tibby, and in a backwards twist, I mentally cast Blake Lively as Lena, I think probably because I did not really know what Greek people looked like + I apparently bypassed the description of her hair color and just heard "natural super-beauty," and so went "WELL BAM, HERE'S MY GIRL." It's also possible I did not know or realize until later that Alexis Bledel was among the cast.
Bridget, on the other hand, I pictured as a Bridget I already knew from my class. Aside from being blonde, she and Blake Lively look absolutely nothing alike (the one I knew had curly hair, a round face, was shorter and had an athletic but generally stockier build), so in my head that worked. It took me a long time to rework those faces in my head, though, I remember that.
Original Impressions: The Book
I gave this book 5 stars when I read it. I shouted it out to everyone I could find as a perfect example of modern, realistic YA literature featuring regular girls that wasn't gross. I loved the friendship. And after digging very hard through my memory banks, the most concrete memories I can muster are:
* Tibby was my favorite/the one I identified with most. Not that we actually have anything in common so much as that I definitely wasn't the artist with grandparents in a foreign country, the aggressively extroverted flirt, or the Puerto Rican child of divorce -- but I could definitely see myself as the person who just stays home all summer and befriends someone younger (I was always making younger friends).
* I felt so sorry for Carmen and her jerk dad springing a surprise new stepfamily on her when he was supposed to be giving her their first whole summer together, just the two of them. (Speaking of feeling sorry: Tibby and her terrible little siblings. the worst! there is frankly nothing ruder than to spring a new sibling on your child for the first time once they pass age 12-13)
* Bee was almost the one I loved the most, because soccer star!!! (I was Carmen's shape and nowhere near a star. I just loved playing) But then she Did It with Eric and I thought she was the biggest skank. Hated her for years.
* By all rights, it seems like I should have loved Lena (she's afraid of boys and never talks! HOW IS THAT NOT ME), but she bored me. I think I was just really turned off by her heritage? I didn't know much about Greece, but the impression I'd gotten was that they seemed, like Italy, to have a lot of grossly oily food, to be kind of weirdly obsessed with food, and to have obnoxiously large families always in each other's business (in my defense, My Big Fat Greek Wedding had come out not long ago at that point). Also, Greece itself seemed to be located in a hot, dusty place without a lot of grass or greenery, so who would want to go there.
Was any of this true? IDK. Regardless, for whatever reason, I just Did Not Dig her storyline or her grandparents. I also thought Kostos was super boring.
* P.S. Bailey was an adorable sweetheart.
Original Impressions: The Movie
Did I actually see the movie in theaters? Nope. I actually don't think I watched it until I'd finished all 4 books. [edit: right after I finished the 4th book, apparently. like within a month]
Regardless, the movie's casting of the Core Four (also Bailey) has always been *chef's kiss* perfect to me. I already loved Amber Tamblyn and Alexis Bledel from Joan of Arcadia and Gilmore Girls, respectively. Maybe I didn't actually know Blake Lively, but I took to her instantly. I'm not sure I knew America, either, but again -- show me someone more perfect for Carmen; I'll wait. (and to this day, I still love them all and think they are gorgeous. You know what that is? Staying power)
Kostos, on the other hand...man. That dude was not the key to my already lukewarm heart.
I legitimately do not remember Vogel existing in this movie, but to be fair, I talked a lot in 2014 about how I'd apparently seen him like 6 times before Under the Dome and only remembered him once. In my defense he had not hit Peak Handsome yet.
I am EXTREMELY HAZY on how the film actually played out -- I have even fewer memories of this than the book -- and I can't remember anything about what they changed, so I look forward to finding out.
Second Impressions: The Book
I nearly wept over the beauty of returning to a time that feels contemporary to me, because I was there (♫ it was rare, I remember it all too well ♫), AND YET: the girls have to stay in touch via actual. handwritten. letters! because social media does not exist, cell phones are not an accessory most high school girls have by default (and certainly not with unlimited minutes), and while email is an option, it's also very easy to go (as these girls do) to places where internet is not a given and/or reliable.
* The thing I have always loved about this series, even though I was late to it, is that these girls are my age. Since i came out in 2001, so I've always assumed the first book was their summer after freshman year, like me. And turns out it is true that they are 15-going-on-16, which by all rights should have made them rising sophomores...
...but for some bizarre reason -- I can only assume it's because the author and every person her age and older in charge of editing failed to realize that times have changed, and was following the old, outdated guidelines of when the birthday cutoff was in December rather than July, so everyone in the same grade was born in the same calendar year instead of the same school year -- being 15-going-on-16 makes these girls rising juniors. IT'S FREAKING ME OUT, MAN.
And I know it's only a year, but somehow, all of this stuff happening after sophomore year at 16? Fine. Permissible. Still a little young, but you've hit proper Young Adult status.
On the other hand, all of this stuff happening WHEN YOU'RE STILL FIFTEEN?? A nightmare. You are babies. Stop this.
* There is a line in the prologue that I don't know whether to cry or scream about: We're the Septembers now. The real ones. We are everything to one another. [...] My mother says it can't stay like this, but I believe it will.
That just feels...VERY OMINOUS. If not by book 4, then 100% by the time the adult novel starts. Just...just knowing what I wrote about book 4 ("after 2 increasingly depressing installments full of change..." and "I wanted to cry and/or punch the book no fewer than 10 times" leads me to think this was a deliberately staged knife to later twist), and considering any book set 10 years later to be Highly Suspect on the change front by default, I am afraid.
* I forgot almost all of the Rules of the Pants and I freaking love (most of) them. "You must never double-cuff the Pants. This is tacky. There will never be a time when this is not tacky." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like...they maybe got the last part of this wrong.
* I do not love the "you must never wash the Pants." WTF, y'all. Did you perhaps buy into that "just stick your jeans in the freezer and they'll be fine" ideology a little too hard? Lena gets blood on them! Carmen literally SITS IN MUD. This cannot be real.
I did NOT remember Kostos stumbling upon poor Lena skinnydipping. Jesus, no wonder that dude/entire relationship could never be endeared to me (and the fact that she later comes upon him skinnydipping? and in both cases, for whatever reason they're not even in the water, they're all the way out getting their clothes and there's just full-frontal staring?? BRASHARES, WHY).
As soon as I read it, I did instantly remember her coming back with her clothes inside-out/askew and crying "Kostos is not a nice boy!" before storming upstairs to be upset. I did not remember that this immediately sets off a fistfight between the grandpas and an accidental assumed accusation of (sexual) assault. WHOOPS.
Other than that, I find that I love Lena quite a lot this time around. I love her breakfasts with Silent Bapi and the descriptions of her painting and basically any time she goes on a walk, even if it's for dumb reasons like finding that boy.
Oh, Carmen. If it is possible, my heart hurt even more for her this time around. "You antagonize people" SHUT UP, she has such a good reason. (Oof, the teen mode is strong in my brain for this one...but also, that scene at the dressmaker's was seriously beyond the pale, and no one ever acknowledges or apologizes for it. Plus, Stepmama generally does a piss-poor job of not acting Shocked that her stepdaughter isn't white.)
I do love, though, that after foolishly throwing a rock through a window, she briefly runs away, then sneaks inside at 3 AM to pack her bag and run away back home without another word to anyone. I didn't remember her doing that, but that was exactly what my hurt teenage brain wanted her to do/would have done myself in that situation, and it was so gratifying to see it happen.
I didn't remember this, but I knew the second she said she'd had Mimi since she was 7 years old that that guinea pig was not gonna make it to the end of the book. That was...not fun to wait for.
I was also pretty sure Bailey was going to die by the end, but I still hoped I was wrong. Which meant tears when Tibby's fear and inability to deal almost stopped her from seeing that poor little girl in the hospital. I mean...the imagery of Bailey being in the hospital and asking for her one remaining friend, who has apparently decided to abandon her? OUCH OUCH OUCH.
Is it weird how much I loved the detail of her working at Wallman's? When I read this book, I'd never had a job before, and now I'm too old for such a job to be anything but utterly humiliating -- even more so than when you're a teenager seen in your smock by a hot guy (which is not to say I won't still end up doing such a job, rate I'm going) -- but it seemed so...simple. So safe. One single summer, mind-numbing work to be sure, but some cash in your pocket at least, and what else are you going to do when all your friends are gone and home contains two screaming brats who need constant attention?
A cool detail I did not catch before: Tibby's parents were 19 when they had her. I thought it was interesting how Bailey observes that she was their "experiment" before they settled into regular parent jobs and had the next set as proper Adults. Also, it was not lost on me that I was (almost) 19 when I read this the first time, and in fact if I'd gotten pregnant at that moment I would have ended up having a kid close to Tibby's birthday at that age, and now I'm 34...the age Tibby's parents are in this book. Wild! Weird!
Aaaand now we get to Bee. Who has gone from having THE WORST to my favorite storyline. Because you know what's happened to me between age 18 and now?
That's right, I've gained a super-fondness for age difference pairings, especially in any context that even remotely resembles a student/teacher pairing. Like, say, a soccer camp counselor and a very aggressively flirtatious soccer camper. And it's only like fifty percent because he's now Mike Vogel in my head.
[sidebar: um, turns out some whitewashing was involved here](speaking of which, I shrieked with Scandal upon reading that Eric is supposed to have skin "several shades darker than Bridget's" -- cue me suspiciously going "wait a minute...", followed immediately by text confirmation that yes, he is in fact supposed to be half Mexican. WELL THEN. Good job hiring the most Caucasian European you could find, casting director??? Now I feel bad, but I am also absolutely not going to give up the biggest reason I am into Bridget/Eric in the first place.)
I'm not even going to apologize, although I am going to furiously make her properly near-17 in my head. This was that part I was looking forward to this time around, and it did NOT disappoint.
I spent every one of their scenes in a damn swoon. I've been grumbling about the fact that I've run out of all the good student/teacher novels that exist that I can access, and here this one has half the things I wanted, right under my nose. The initial innocent admiration, the "we can't do this" (like 5 times), the exquisite wrenching apart after the first forbidden kiss that we all know won't be the last... notably this breaks every rule I have about how this kind of relationship should NOT be based entirely (or even more than about 10%) on physical attraction, and yet here I am. I just like him so much!
I mean, it probably helps that the sex is so off-screen that I had to double check that was actually the point where it happened. YA has gotten so ostentatiously terrible in its fancy new sex-positive ways that I can hardly believe I once had the luxury of being mad about it merely being referenced as happening -- and, spoiler alert, I'm pretty sure it happens with (at the very least) Lena and Kostos in the future too, and I still plan to be mad about that -- but at this point, I am apparently getting more permissive about it happening as long as it's non-explicit and/or I ship the teens involved. Huh.
Anyway, I really love the talk afterward, which is the nicest possible way of saying "hey, so just to be clear that was definitely a one night stand, can you be okay with that? also I am really sorry I didn't check your ID to find out just how illegal you were." (aughhh, just remembering she's still not quite 16 made me break out in hives again) Still, I'm pretty damn sure this is not the last we see of Eric -- in fact, I thiiiink I might have seen something about them being together in Sisterhood Everlasting? oh dear god plz yes. i'll even pretend I can stand the possibility that they don't stay together by the end -- and I so look forward to the next installment(s).
Second Impressions: The Movie
J/K I haven't rewatched it yet, BUT I did skim the Wikipedia summary and oh my god, I am so GIDDY that it looks like any and all changes made were for the better. I don't love the idea of the Greek families being blood rivals or whatever, but if it means Kostos saving Lena from drowning instead of the conflict being about seeing her naked? *stabs button frantically* UPGRADE! Also it sounds like maybe Bridget and Eric don't actually sleep together, just make out, which is DEFINITELY better.
Also, ALSO!! I had NO IDEA that my beloved Office staple Ken Kwapis directed this film! Or that Delia Ephron co-wrote the screenplay (w/ Elizabeth Chandler, whom I do not recognize by name but who apparently has the 1995 A Little Princess and What a Girl Wants writing creds to her name, SO). Or that NANCY FLIPPIN' TRAVIS was Carmen's stepmom; oh my god, SO happy right now.
Looking Ahead: I have literally no idea what happens in the next 3 books, plot-wise, except that Lena/Kostos develops somehow. I only ever wrote a review (short and non-specific) for the fourth book. I have the vague sense that Carmen might gain a baby sibling at some point, and that is it. I'm going to do my best to skip the summaries so I can truly be surprised*.
However, my copy of book 1 contained a sneak peek for book 2, and may I say I am currently SHRIEKING FOR JOY at the plot point of Bridget (secretly, for some reason, with a false name?) finagling herself a job cleaning out her grandmother's attic -- a grandmother who apparently doesn't know what she looks like -- presumably looking for more history about her mom. BEST PLOTLINE FOR MY FAVORITE, YEAH!
*I already failed and sneaked a look at book 4's summary, which on the bright side I have immediately wiped from my mind, except for one tiny awesome detail:[about Bee's plot]WHAT IS THIS ABOUT BRIDGET AND A PROFESSOR "AVAILABLE IN EVERY WAY EXCEPT ONE." Are you gonna give me more inappropriate hookups?? Because I will toss Eric aside for that, even just an attempt. I got a whole stockpile of things to see; I assume we can revisit him later as needed and if not, we can do it in fanfic.
P.S. I've never read 3 Willows -- I always thought it looked very juvenile, not to mention a cash grab -- but I'm going to this time, now that I appreciate middle grade AND am in fact very sorry it never even got a sequel. I can already tell these books won't be enough, and I absolutely love the idea of a younger generation looking up in awe at these older girls as role models for everlasting friendship. (especially as I have just learned that the original girls continue to make appearances, huzzah! man that would have been good to know when I was waiting to be old enough for Sisterhood Everlasting)
I'm just trying to figure out when to read it. Do I read it after book 4, when it was published and set? Or will that kill my momentum to finally get to book 5, when I'm the closest I've ever been? I feel like after I read book 5, I'll want a happier palate cleanser...but what if it's actually secretly devastating to return to a time of optimism? I don't knooow.
P.P.S. ARE YOU KIDDING ME ABOUT THE THIRD MOVIE GETTING ALL THE WAY UP TO HAVING KEN KWAPIS ATTACHED TO DIRECT, but then apparently stalling out and disappearing into development hell?? With a summary like "A group of four former school friends reunite for a road trip after growing apart in their adult lives"? ROAD TRIP?? GIVE IT 2 ME.