As the girls face challenges and problems on their own this summer, they gain a deeper understanding of the importance of friendship and how much they rely on it in every aspect of their lives. In South Carolina, Carmen finds it difficult to make sense of how she feels without her friends around to give her life shape and meaning. On her own, Carmen flounders, bottling up her emotions when she should express them, ultimately exploding in a childish act of defiance. Carmen has always treasured her friends, but for the first time she understands how much she relies on them to help her keep hold of her sense of self. Tibby, more distant and ironic than the other girls, realizes how important friends are as she spends more time with Bailey. Tibby doesn’t befriend Bailey willingly; she’s unused to opening up to someone new. But Bailey’s selfless enthusiasm and compassion show Tibby how lucky she is. Not only do she and her friends have their health, but they also have one another. The lonely people Tibby gets to know help her to see what a gift it is not to be alone. Lena relies on her friends to look beyond her beauty. When she’s apart from them, she withdraws into herself more than ever. Without people around her who know her inside and out, Lena feels like she is all surface, and she’s scared to open up. For Lena, friendship reminds her of who she is on the inside.
Bridget is the least vocal about friendship of all the girls, but her reliance on it is no less intense. Among strangers and acquaintances, Bridget’s effusiveness and energy are captivating, fun, and exciting. No one at soccer camp knows her history, including her mother’s tragic death, so no one thinks to tell Bridget to slow down or be careful. Without her friends around to keep Bridget calm and grounded, she goes a little crazy, only to then plummet into deep sadness. Bridget isn’t proud, and she easily reaches out to her friends when she needs them. But friendship for Bridget is more urgent—and, perhaps, more lifesaving—than it is for the other girls.
The search for love, either familial or romantic, is a prime motivation for the actions and decisions the girls make during this important summer. Carmen’s search for love focuses on her father, whose approval and affection she seeks relentlessly. Carmen has never really gotten over the fact that her father moved out many years ago, and she treads carefully when she’s with him, always afraid he’ll leave her—or hurt her—again. To truly find love with her father, Carmen must learn to accept her natural feelings of anger and speak to him honestly about what she needs from him. At the beginning of the summer, Tibby seems to be searching for love with Tucker Rowe, but her search soon shifts. Tibby’s search ultimately focuses on a more general love, through which she grows more compassionate, open-minded, and kind. Lena’s search for love is romantic, as she dismisses and then falls for Kostos in Greece. Though her search is sometimes literal—she tries to run into him around the village—it is ultimately very personal. Lena must come to terms with her own fears before she can open herself up to love with Kostos. Bridget’s search also is romantic, as she relentlessly pursues Eric the coach. Rather than be fearful like Lena, Bridget is overly bold, never taking no for an answer and pursuing Eric even when she should not.
The search for love does not always end happily for the girls. Carmen and Lena are successful in their searches, with Carmen achieving a new and more honest relationship with her father and Lena finding that her feelings for Kostos are mutual. Tibby does achieve a new openness, but her heart is broken by Bailey’s death in the process. Her search has been a traumatic one, but she has gained greater maturity because of it. Bridget’s search is successful only in that Eric admits to having feelings for her. Otherwise, it is a disaster, leaving Bridget confused and hurt. The tender kiss Lena and Kostos share is a far cry from the guilt-ridden, secretive physical encounter between Bridget and Eric (Brashares does not describe the encounter, so readers don’t really know what happened). Bridget’s search is the only one that is truly and fully a failure.
As the girls approach their sixteenth birthdays, the challenges they face grow more difficult, and growing up requires them to find greater maturity, wisdom, and courage than ever before. Carmen confronts a significant change in her father’s life, which forces her to evaluate her relationship with her father and figure out how to make it stronger. Initially, Carmen reacts selfishly and immaturely, rejecting her father’s new family out of hand and throwing a rock through the window in defiance. But by the end of the summer she’s gained the wisdom to understand that her father is happy, and she acts maturely by attending his wedding to prove that her love for him is stronger than any change that takes place. Tibby has been through some big changes in her family, as her parents turned from hippies into professionals and had two more children. She already has a maturity that her friends lack. However, she grows up by developing the abilities to accept people who are different from her and to see the world with compassion. Bailey’s death grieves her, but she comes away from the experience with important insights about how to live more fully.
The struggle to grow up experienced by Lena and Bridget involves confronting their own personal weaknesses and problems. Lena is chronically withdrawn, closed off to almost everyone, and this becomes a problem as she begins searching for love. She grows up by facing her fears of intimacy and rejection and opening up to Kostos about her feelings. This isn’t easy for her to do, and it requires a new kind of maturity and bravery. Bridget, though self-confident and outgoing, finds growing up difficult because she faces new feelings and situations that she doesn’t know how to handle. Love and lust are overwhelming for Bridget, and she often acts without thinking. She learns her lesson the hard way about moving too fast when it comes to boys. Bridget acts wiser than her years, but she still has a lot of growing up to do.
Sports and games punctuate the summer for Bridget, Carmen, and Tibby and help them learn some lessons about growing up. Soccer plays an important role in Bridget’s summer at soccer camp in Mexico. Bridget is a star player, but she doesn’t always understand the value in letting other people shine sometimes. Irrepressible and competitive, Bridget plays soccer like she pursues Eric: with wild abandon and no desire—or ability—to hold back. She must learn to ease up in her soccer, as her coach Molly says, if she ever wants to be a true star on a team. Carmen doesn’t play tennis competitively, but it’s very meaningful to her, because tennis is something she and her father do together. In South Carolina, their plans to play tennis are ruined several times, and Carmen must accept that her father’s attention is divided now. For Tibby, the video game Dragon Master comes to teach her a valuable lesson about life. At first, she dismisses the game as ridiculous, and she doesn’t understand how anyone—like Brian McBrian—can get so wrapped up in it. However, as her own perspective begins changing, she understands the value in the small pieces of happiness Brian finds as he racks up successes in the game.
Letter-writing occurs throughout the novel as the girls keep one another updated on the important things taking place in their lives. The girls send letters separately and to accompany the Pants as they make the journey from girl to girl. The letters allow us as readers to keep track of the girls as we become engaged with one girl’s story at a time. They also help to remind us that the girls’ stories are taking place simultaneously all over the world. The letters help the girls to keep in touch, but they also reveal how much of the summer cannot be translated into words, or even shared among the friends. For example, Bridget never reveals in her letters what, exactly, happened with Eric, and Tibby never fully tells her friends how important a role Bailey is playing in her life. The girls are still connected to one another, but they are also facing a lot of new experiences on their own in an adultlike way.
All four girls encounter death in ways that shape their lives as well as their summers. Bridget’s mother died when Bridget was young, and Bridget still struggles with her feelings of abandonment. In Greece, Lena learns about the death of Kostos’s parents and little brother. Seeing how Kostos has dealt with this tragedy helps Lena learn that love is a risk worth taking. Tibby faces two deaths during the summer: Mimi’s and Bailey’s. Mimi, Tibby’s pet since childhood, was a reliable companion, just as Bailey turns out to be. In a way, Tibby takes both for granted, only realizing their true importance once they are suffering or finally gone. Tibby doesn’t know how to deal with her feelings of grief and loss. At first, she denies death entirely, putting Mimi in a freezer and ignoring Bailey’s pleas to visit her in the hospital. Through her sadness, though, she eventually gathers the courage to face the fact of death, and she finds a new motivation to make her own life count. Although she doesn’t face a physical death this summer, Carmen must deal with the death of her fantasy relationship with her father. Carmen had built the relationship into a fantasy, deliberately avoiding all conflict. The relationship falls apart when Carmen can’t tell her father how she really feels and what she needs. Only by being honest with each other can they revive their relationship and grow closer. Death forces all the friends to reconsider their perspectives on life.
Family plays an important role in shaping the girls and their summers. Bridget has been shaped by a family tragedy: her mother’s death. We don’t learn many details about this death, but we do learn that it was related to depression—and thus the death was probably a suicide. Bridget’s ups and downs are intimately connected to her mother’s death, as she has struggled to find ways to cope with her grief throughout her life. Tibby finds her family confusing and chaotic. She has two baby siblings, and her parents are completely different than they were when Tibby was a child. They’re still Tibby’s family, but Tibby has had to struggle to maintain her own sense of identity amidst so much change.
Lena and Carmen’s summers are focused on family, with both of them traveling to new places to live with relatives. Lena learns a lot about how she fits into her family, from whom she’s often felt very different. She is quiet while her sister, Effie, is outgoing, and she looks different from her sister and her parents. But when she realizes how alike she and her grandfather are, in appearance as well as temperament, she understands her unique place in her family and accepts that she really does belong. Carmen expects the summer to strengthen her relationship with her father—which it does, although in a different way than she expected. In the process of reevaluating her place in her father’s life, she gains a wider perspective on what family can be. Even though Lydia, Krista, and Paul are blond and different from her, Carmen learns to accept them as her family, because her father loves them. The definition of family, Carmen learns, can be fluid.
The Traveling Pants represent the girls’ friendship and the powerful, positive influence it has in all four girls’ lives. The girls are all very different, with different personalities, interests, worries, and family situations. The Pants, which fit all four girls beautifully despite their very different body shapes, demonstrate that the girls’ friendship is so strong that differences don’t matter. In a way, their differences are what bond them, since they care about each other so much as individuals. Just as the girls support and inspire one another, the Pants help them to do things they find difficult or unpleasant. By putting on the Pants, the girls feel as though they’re surrounded by their friends, and this feeling gives them the power to move forward, take risks, and do what needs to be done. Each girl acts independently when she puts on the Pants, but she gains courage by knowing that her friends are behind her, if only in spirit. The Pants are like a physical form of the strong friendship among the girls.
The Pants are important to the girls during this significant summer. In previous summers, the girls spent all their time together, sharing clothes, hanging out, and discussing every small detail of their experiences. This summer, they’ll barely see one another at all. Having never spent any significant amount of time apart, the girls depend on the Pants to keep them connected. By agreeing to send the Pants back and forth, they guarantee to one another that they’ll stay in touch and constantly think about one another even as they spend the summer on their own. However, the girls don’t really need the Pants to stay close. The Pants help each girl feel as though the friends are together, but their memories of their friends—and not the Pants—are what really give them courage. When Carmen, Tibby, Lena, and Bridget put on the Pants and imagine what their friends would say or how their friends would act, they are drawing on the strength of their friendship, not on any true power of the Pants. Even without the Traveling Pants, the girls’ friendship would survive the physical distance that divides them this summer, because the friendship is so solid inside each of the girls themselves.
Tibby’s pet guinea pig, Mimi, represents the fragility of life and gives Tibby her first experience of death. Tibby has had Mimi since she was seven years old, and sometimes she compares herself to Mimi. Tibby envies Mimi when her own life is going badly, wishing she could be all alone in a box and not have to face her problems. When Tibby’s life is going well, she feels sorry for Mimi for having to just sleep and eat all day instead of being part of the world outside. Tibby loves Mimi, but she often takes her for granted, assuming Mimi will always be there. When Bailey meets Mimi, she helps Tibby to see Mimi in a new light. Tibby has been used to no one taking any interest in Mimi, and Bailey helps Tibby appreciate her all over again.
When Mimi dies, Tibby learns the importance of living life to the fullest. At first, she denies the truth, and she puts Mimi’s dead body in the freezer to avoid acknowledging that Mimi is really gone. At the same time, Tibby avoids acknowledging how sick Bailey is, preferring to just pretend that nothing is wrong. Only when Tibby faces the difficult truth about Bailey, and eventually goes to her funeral, does she understand how precious life is. Instead of turning away from life and its inevitable conclusion—death—Tibby embraces it. She buries Mimi near Bailey’s grave, wanting them to be together. Instead of wishing she could hide from life, as Mimi could in her box, Tibby decides to live as much as she can.
Tibby’s film, a documentary of her summer at home, represents the change in how Tibby sees the world. Tibby is disgusted that she has to stay home in Bethesda, Maryland, while her friends go elsewhere for the summer, and she is even more disgusted that she has to spend her time working at Wallman’s. Expecting to hate everything and everyone around her, Tibby decides to make a scathing documentary of her life—a “suckumentary,” as she calls it. Tibby sees the world through a sarcastic, biting lens that doesn’t allow any room for compassion or understanding. She assumes everyone is ridiculous and that she is better than they are. By making a film that makes fun of those around her, Tibby shows how superior she feels. However, Tibby’s film turns out much different than she expected. Because Bailey helps Tibby look more closely at other people and see what’s inside of them, Tibby finds it harder to make fun of people automatically. Instead, she begins to see that people have difficult lives and sad stories, and that they aren’t as worthless as she has once thought. Instead of a comical, meanly funny film about ridiculous people, Tibby’s film turns out to be a touching exploration of people whose lives are very different from hers. Tibby has learned to see the world in an entirely new way.