Growing up is notoriously difficult, and few periods are harder than the early teens years. Our leading lady Wendy is thirteen years old, and because of this, she's totally in a period of transition in her life. She's starting to get moody and difficult, and she's been fighting with her mother and stepfather Josh more often. Whereas she used to like spending lots of time with her family, now they're starting to drive her crazy:
I don't know why I say the mean things I do, she told Amelia. My parents are just getting on my nerves so much lately. Sometimes these horrible remarks ooze out of me. (1.51)
This is all perfectly normal adolescent angst, as is the fact that Wendy and her best friend Amelia are increasingly interested in boys, hanging out, and sex. They haven't actually done anything sexual yet, but they definitely talk about it a lot. They even have a pact about when they're going to lose their virginity:
But he didn't try to do anything else, right? Wendy asked her. They had decided to stay virgins until they were seventeen, and not to do anything with anyone until they'd discussed it with each other.
We talked about it, she said. He explained to me how it is for boys. The sex drive and so on. He did it one time already with a girl at his old school. He said next time he wants it to be with a person that he's really good friends with first, like me. (27.7-8)
It's clear that Wendy is in the process of becoming a teenager, and as it is for pretty much everyone, that process is kind of messy.
Part of Wendy's transition into being teenager is being absolutely atrocious to her mother. Although Wendy and her mom used to be best friends and share everything, increasingly, Wendy finds herself at odds with her mom and fighting about everything. Her mother even calls her a selfish, ungenerous person at one point:
Times like this, Wendy, she said. She said this very quietly, which was the worst. I wonder what I did to raise such a selfish, ungenerous daughter. I wonder if I even know you anymore.
When she said that, Wendy actually felt scared. What if she really had turned into this awful person? (19.15-16)
At the beginning of the book, Wendy thinks this is all her mother's fault and that she's the worst, but when September 11 happens and her mother dies, Wendy starts to feel huge waves of guilt and regret for the ways she treated her mom. She wishes she could take back all the things that she said to her mother and all the fights she started:
Thinking about it now—all the times she should have helped out, but didn't, how selfish she used to be—made Wendy feel sick. (19.6)
Because Wendy's mom dies during such a difficult time in their relationship, Wendy is plagued with guilt throughout the book. She has to come to terms with the fact that she and her mother fought before Janet died but that this doesn't mean they didn't love each other endlessly. The fact that Wendy was being a difficult teenager doesn't change the love that they shared.
Even when Wendy is being a brat toward her mom, she still loves the family she has in New York City. She adores her little brother, Louie, and considers Josh her "real" dad because he's the one who is always there for her:
Times like that, Wendy never said he wasn't really her father. Same as she never called Louie her half brother. Somebody else did now and then—Aunt Pam, for instance. (9.45)
Despite her teen angst, Wendy has a really solid family unit. Her family life is thrown into flux after September 11, though, when her biological father, Garrett, decides that she should come to live with him in California. When she reaches California, Wendy has to start over with a whole new family—one that includes Garrett and his girlfriend Carolyn instead of her mom, Josh, and Louie:
You have a great family, he said.
It wasn't exactly the one I started out with, she said. Or who I thought I'd be spending Christmas with. (29.198-199)
In the end, Wendy decides to go back to New York City to live with Josh and Louie, but she's still glad that she came to California. In doing so, she builds familial relationships with Garrett and Carolyn, so when she goes back to the Big Apple, she knows she can count on them at any time, too.
When Wendy moves to California, she decides she's going to do things differently and be a whole new person. She sheds her good girl persona and starts skipping school because she can be anyone that she wants:
Wendy could use a getaway. She could be anyone she wanted in California. Nobody would have to know anything. Not even that she came from New York, or what happened to her mother. She wouldn't have to go through every day with people giving her their sympathetic looks. (12.11)
But by getting a new start in a completely unfamiliar location, Wendy is able to learn more about herself and slowly heal from the grief of losing her mother. She surrounds herself with new people and finds that she is strong and resilient, and she's able to take care of herself and handle new situations with aplomb, too.
When she learns that her mother's best friend Kate is dating Josh, she isn't mad or hurt—instead, she finds the maturity to forgive her and be happy for them because they're finding some kind of solace in this awful situation. She agrees with Carolyn when she says that Wendy shouldn't begrudge them:
Just a small scrap of something good is all. This is more like a harmonica tune and one small star shining down on them. You've got two good people who've had a crushing load of grief lately, and if they can find some way to give each other a little comfort one of these days, who'd begrudge them? (28.161)
And in the end, after Wendy has healed and grown enough to face New York City again, she boards a train by herself and travels all the way across the country. She's fearless and independent now. Through her journey, Wendy has grown stronger, coming to know and accept herself a lot more. She still misses her mom something fierce, but she now knows she has plenty to love and live for in her life, too.