Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366

Elizabeth and Tara are opposites in many ways. Tara is outgoing and impulsive, and she wears unconventional clothes and streaks her hair purple. Elizabeth is shy and reserved and prefers jeans and loafers to anything chic. Tara has young, free-spirited parents who are just learning to become responsible adults and earn a steady income, and Elizabeth has older, upper-middle class parents who make enough money to hire maids and gardeners and live in a six-hundred-thousand-dollar house. Early on in the novel, Tara appears to have a rather unstable home life and Elizabeth appears to have security and stability. Then the girls undergo a reversal of fortunes. Over the course of the novel, the girls' situations change drastically, and by the end of the story, the authors have defined the nature of true friendship.

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The girls remain close despite their differences because they continue to show each other respect, kindness, empathy, and genuine concern for each other's happiness. These similarities far outshine their differences. Yet the contrasts in the girls' lives move beyond their personalities and socioeconomic status as these characters begin to deal with their reversal of fortunes. Both girls' lives change significantly during the course of the novel, and the authors successfully chronicle their characters' responses to the changes. No conversations take place in the novel except between Tara and Elizabeth, yet through their letters, much is revealed about their relationships with other people. We come to understand their relationships with others because the authors so successfully express their characters' feelings. The only other character in the novel who has an active voice at any point is Tara's mother, who writes to Elizabeth to express her concerns and give her support when Elizabeth experiences hardship.

Tara and Elizabeth share a special kind of friendship and they manage to remain close despite the distance between them. These girls love each other and trust each other, yet they have the typical arguments best friends have in seventh grade. Their relationship begins to dissolve when the girls become volatile because of their tense home situations and they exchange angry words. Tara's frustration at not knowing how to help Elizabeth understand her father increases the tension. But neither long distance, nor petty arguments, nor angry words over sensitive issues undermines their friendship. They use each other as sounding boards, testing their own actions and reactions to life's complexities. Readers recognize much of what transpires between Tara and Elizabeth from the close friendships in their own lives. The authors make it clear that close friendships, like any long-term relationships, involve ups and downs, pains and joys. They convey the message that friendships are not always easy, but if two people respect and genuinely care about each other, they can resolve their problems together.

Some of the difficulties the girls face in the novel are typical adolescent problems that arise in school situations everywhere. Tara worries about making friends in her new school, for instance, and Elizabeth worries about navigating through her old school without Tara. They both discuss situations that arise with boys. But some of the problems the girls face are serious and disturbing. Change in itself can be disturbing for young teenagers, and having a best friend suddenly move miles away is a big adjustment. The girls must soon make other adjustments to situations within their families. Elizabeth becomes disillusioned by her father's irresponsible behavior, and Tara becomes worried when she sees her parents settling into patterns that feel unfamiliar. Both of these girls experience rude awakenings when they recognize that things are not always as they seem and change is inevitable and not always positive.

The authors underscore the difference in the girls' lives from the start of the novel. Before Tara moved away, Elizabeth's life was always predictable, and she always felt that her family's financial situation was stable and her parents had a good, solid relationship. Then her parents' finances and their relationship disintegrate. Her father loses his job and abandons his family. Elizabeth knows there are problems even before her father leaves, but she can not positively identify them. Her fear escalates as her parents continue to suffer, but neglect to tell Elizabeth the full story. She expresses her concern and her confusion to Tara, and the girls try to analyze the situation together.

Although Elizabeth's life was stable before these changes occurred, Tara's life was rather chaotic. Tara's parents begin to settle down just as Elizabeth's stability begins to crumble. Tara's parents begin to act more responsibly, set household rules, and make plans to have a baby. It becomes clear early in the novel that Danziger and Martin intend to make change a primary theme. As adolescents, Tara and Elizabeth are in a natural state of change, but the events that turn their homes inside out make the passage from childhood to adulthood particularly difficult.

As the girls progress through the passage, they struggle with conflicting emotions and their relationship becomes volatile. So not only do the girls' lives change, but their friendship changes as well. What Tara and Elizabeth appear to fear most is that their relationship could die as they each establish new friends and lives in different cities. As Tara and Elizabeth share their joys and hardships in their letters, the process of navigating through their lives seems to parallel the process of navigating through their friendship. In both cases, the girls' emotions evolve through the stages of contentment, confusion, disillusionment, and renewal. They undergo tests of loyalty, strength, and perseverance in both their home situations and in their relationship with each other. The story begins with the girls' physical separation and ends with their emotional union. The conflicts in their lives begin with the fracture of set patterns and end with a rebirth of security and self-confidence.

Tara and Elizabeth learn how to cope with their problems by giving each other sympathy and support. But they also learn how to cope with their problems by observing their parents' methods of coping with them. When times get rough in Elizabeth's house, her father turns to alcohol and abandons his family, while her mother takes action to solve the problem rather than retreat from it. She gets a job for the first time and takes over the role of breadwinner. Elizabeth gains a new kind of respect for her mother when she witnesses this. As a result, Elizabeth quite naturally follows suit and settles rather comfortably into her small apartment, learns how to cook, and tries to act maturely and help her little sister through this confusing time.

Danziger and Martin deal with the issue of parenting in the novel, as the actions of the parents teach Tara and Elizabeth lessons in responsibility. Tara's family struggles with money, but her mother is communicative with her daughter and with Elizabeth and is sensitive to their needs. Perhaps, in part, being such a young mother led to her sensitivity, but Tara's mother also appears to be naturally empathetic and sympathetic. Elizabeth has a much easier time talking to Tara's mother about her problems than she does talking to her own mother. An examination of Tara's relationship with her mother and Elizabeth's relationship with hers forces the issue of what is important in life—possessing material things or the freedom to express feelings. This applies to the relationship between Tara and Elizabeth, too. It does not matter that one is rich and one is poor, or that one is shy and one is outgoing. What matters is that they respect each other as individuals and take the time to communicate with each other.

Danziger is often criticized for offering simple solutions to complex problems. Her books are humorous and upbeat, yet she often deals with disturbing issues; Elizabeth's father resorts to alcoholism to cope and abandons his family, leaving them bankrupt. But the authors do not seem to be offering any simple solutions to these problems; they seem to be stressing that people can tap into their own strengths and survive most difficulties. By the end of the novel, the girls have navigated through their hardships, dealt effectively with the rifts that occurred in their friendship, and emerged as stronger people and better friends.

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