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.