The latest novel by Ann Brashares, 3 Willows, follows the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, but stands alone and features three new characters. 3 Willows is set in the same town as the other books, during the summer after eighth grade, as three friends face the transition to high school. Ama, the daughter of African immigrants, strives to live up to the academic reputation of her genius older sister. Polly, daughter of a free-spirited sculptor, craves any kind of connection to her unknown father. Jo, from a more privileged background, seeks popularity as a means of escaping the reality of her splintering family. The three friends once aspired to be like the well-known Traveling Pants sisters, whom they idealize, but instead find themselves drifting apart. The four friends from the Traveling Pants books, and their relatives, make occasional cameo appearances, which adds to the fun of this book. In 3 Willows, however, there are no magical devices like the pants.
I haven't read the Traveling Pants books (though I have seen the movies), but I must say that I quite enjoyed 3 Willows. It took me a little while to separate out the three characters in my head. The viewpoint shifts between them, and includes, especially near the beginning of the book, little, journal-like sections in which each girl recalls events of the past. For a while I was looking for clues as to what made each girl distinct. But once they got away from one another, each on her own path for the summer, I started appreciating them as individual characters. And by the end of the book, I was really pulling for all three of them, and their friendship.
I thought that Ama was particularly well-done. After winning a scholarship, which she thinks will send her on some sort of academic summer program, she ends up instead in an Outward Bound kind of thing. She completely rebels against this, doesn't want to have anything to do with hiking, hates nature, dreads rappelling, doesn't make friends with the other campers, and is generally a square peg in a round hole. I thought that Brashares did a good job of making Ama mildly annoying in this context, but still believable and likeable. And while the eventual resolution to her situation is somewhat predictable, Brashares maintains a light touch, keeping Ama's character development well within the bounds of plausibility. Here are a couple of examples to give you a picture for Ama:
"And when her hair was being evil, Ama thought every part of her was ugly. Her eyes didn't get smaller and her neck didn't get skinnier and her ears didn't stick out more just because her hair was behaving badly, but that was how it felt to her." (Page 48)
"It seemed to her she'd felt differently in her body back then (during childhood). She'd lived in it more. She was closer to the ground then. She also remembered the particular kind of tiredness you got from being outside all day. It was a nice kind of tiredness, languid rather than grumpy." (Page 196)
"Everyone else had made it look so effortless she hadn't even noticed how they'd done it... She felt like her one talent in life was for making things effortful." (Page 252)
On looking back over the other passages that I flagged, I find that Jo, the girl striving to be popular, is surprisingly insightful:
"When he put it (her hand, after holding it) back on her lap, she wished he would take it again. To the rest of her body, her hand was suddenly like a stranger, a prodigal, gone off to have adventures in the big world. But maybe it was like a baby bird that had been held by a human, so it couldn't come home again." (Page 85)
"Sometimes being friends with Polly felt like being friends with her younger self, like she knew what was going to happen and that it wasn't going to be good. Jo wanted to keep going forward, and Polly always pulled her back." (Page 121)
The supporting characters don't reveal as many layers, but I think that's ok in this book - the idea is for the reader to bond with the three friends, and identify with their struggles. The supporting characters are a bit like foils from which the main characters gain insight. Like:
"Maureen was one of those people whose prettiness crept up on you over time, in step with their niceness." (Page 125)
Throughout the book, parallels are drawn between the three friends and three willow trees that they once planted. Each section of the book is marked by a fact about willow trees, like "The roots of the willow tree are remarkable for their strength and tenacious hold on life". I think that the willow analogy adds a level of poetry to the book, and also makes it more friendly for reluctant readers (a continuing theme to look for). There are also occasional letters and emails sprinkled throughout the book - not enough to be distracting, but enough to make each girl's voice more clear, while breaking up the text. It's the kind of book that entices you to read one more chapter, and then one more, until the book is suddenly finished.
I recommend 3 Willows to fans of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, or movies. It stands alone as a starting place for new readers, too. 3 Willows is great book for middle school readers, mainly girls, especially those struggling with changing friendships. 3 Willows made me think about the friends that I grew apart from at the start of high school, and the reasons why, and it made me want to get on Facebook right now and tell those friends that I still think about them. I hope that Ama, Jo, and Polly will stay friends, and that we'll get to read about them in other books to come.
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 13, 2009
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: Love2Read Children's Books (more a book talk than a review), Omnivoracious, Kid Lit Kit, Propernoun.net, the Reading Zone, TheHappyNappyBookseller, Review X
Author Interviews: TheBookBind (an author video and trailer, rather than an interview), Publishers Weekly (link via Omnivoracious)
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.