Today, I'm reviewing Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before.
This was an interesting experience for me. It definitely wasn't what I expected, but I think it made the reading experience even better, simply because it wasn't what I was expecting.
Hardcover, 368 pages
Format read: Finished copy courtesy of publisher
Synopsis via Goodreads:
What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them... all at once?
Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren't love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she's written. One for every boy she's ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean's love life goes from imaginary to out of control.
Fortunately for me, Simon Teen was kind enough to send me a finished copy, and I got to reading!
Things that worked:
So the first thing you should probably know about To All The Boys I've Loved Before, is that the synopsis is a bit…misleading.
From the way the synopsis was written, I - like Kelly at Effortlessly Reading - expected a story centered on the idea of how Lara Jean deals with the fact that her crushes now know that she liked them. I expected the crushes to show back up in her life, a la ABC Family style, and sweep her off of her feet.
Not quite. While the letters are mailed out, this book centers primarily on one specific crush, and how Lara Jean deals with that one crush knowing, including a fake boyfriend plot to throw that crush off the scent.
But I think if you keep that in mind, you'll have a good reading experience.
Lara Jean is not a Katniss. Nor is she a Blair, or anyone else in the YA world who is especially known for being firece. Lara Jean is pretty much the antithesis of all of those characters: she's quiet, nerdy (though pretty!) and forgettable in her day-to-day crowd.
And this is what I loved about her. Han has written a genuine coming-of-age story where the protagonist doesn't rely on magic, popularity, riches or anything along those lines to bring about her transformation. Instead, Lara Jean's transformation is literally spurned on by a day-to-day accident after her sister leaves for colleges and those past letters to her crushes are mailed out, and her growth develops naturally from there on out.
I loved watching Lara Jean growing using nothing but her intelligence and intuition. She would occasionally fall and having missteps, but generally became more well-rounded as she developed both internally and with her relationships throughout and the book. And while she was definitely a bit annoying at times - more on this later - I felt like I grew with her as I read.
This is my first Jenny Han book, and I'm not going to lie - I was slightly put off by the writing at first. It felt a little too self-concious, and a little too awkward for the reading process to go smoothly.
However, the more I read, the more I liked the way that Han was building her characters and her world. The awkwardness was perfect for Lara Jean, as she moved from being the always slightly ignored middle-child to suddenly having the spotlight really shone on her for the first time, after her sister leaves for college.
There were several instances in which Han wrote thoughtful, evocative passages about what it was like to be the middle child of a widowed father, and how difficult it was to be like everyone else, and I wanted to be like yes, YES! because that was something I could absolutely relate to at a deeper level.
So bottom line: even if the writing doesn't click with you at first, stick with it. Han will draw you in.
The romance factor:
Without giving any spoilers away, Han does an awesome job of writing about both Lara Jean's past and current crushes.
Once Lara Jean (and the readers) realize that the letters have been mailed out, Lara Jean begins to share each crush she had (and why), and how she reacts to them now. Through her crushes through the ages, we see how she's not only developed a person, but also why she eventually ends up with the two (!) crushes that she has during the book.
As for those two - I'm not going to divulge any details - but Han gives pretty compelling arguments for Lara Jean to get together with both boys.
Even though To All The Boys I've Loved Before is (very) obviously a teenaged romance novel, Han also never lets us forget about the importance of family - both blood and families that you make - throughout the book.
The relationship that Lara Jean had with her sisters, dad and even their relationships with various members of their neighborhood, all really reinforces the idea that all of the relationships we have in our lives make a difference to who we are, and who we become as we grow up.
Ultimately, while Han gives a pretty convincing case for romance and teenaged love throughout the book, I think she builds an even more compelling case for why family can be just as important as a romantic relationship.
I had the benefit of going into the book knowing that there was going to be a sequel, so I was okay with the fact that there were some pretty interesting loose ends at the end of the finished book.
(Also, if I understand correctly, the ARC ending was different than what was actually published. So my ending was also more definitive/substantial than the ending of ARC readers.)
But even if that wasn't the case, I still think I would have liked the ending anyway. Without giving any spoilers away, there's a definite feeling of "…so, what now?" at the end of the book, which I think is very, very true to real life. The characters are in situations that they definitely didn't anticipate, none of this was in their game plan, and I think that any reader will be able to completely relate that uncertainty of what comes next.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
However, I would argue that as flawed as Lara Jean's personality could be, Han's characterization choices actually made her all that more realistic and relatable for readers. Sixteen-year-olds aren't supposed to have all of the answers in the world, and aren't expected to know how to behave or react in every situation. So the fact that Lara Jean would occasionally think an unkind thought about her sister, or would write overly analytical letters to her crushes, made her all that more realistic for me.
I also personally liked Lara Jean's nerdiness and awkwardness, because I was her at sixteen.So, it was actually pretty reassuring reading Han's characterization, because:
a) it showed me that I definitely wasn't alone in feeling like Lara Jean at that age, and
b) it also means that there are other readers out there, who probably feel/felt like me at sixteen, who will also find a common identity with Lara, and be reassured by that. And to me, that's one of the best parts about reading.
Through Lara Jean's eyes, Han tells a sweet story about first loves, unexpected romance, sibling and family relationships, and even what it's like to grow up as a multicultural teen in today's society. There's something for everyone in this book, and I think that fans of contemporary fiction will absolutely be over-the-moon for this charming, relatable tale.
As for me personally: this is my first Han book, but it definitely won't be my last. I'll be back for the sequel, and will be highly recommending this book for friends of contemporary fiction.
Recommend for: fans of Meg Cabot, Lindsey Leavitt, Kelly Fiore.
Disclaimer: I received a finished copy of To All the Boys I've Loved Before from Simon & Schuster, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!