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.