To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Simon and Schuster, 2014, 384 pages
YA Realistic Fiction
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han has been getting a lot of attention in the book blog world. (A brief-ish aside here: “Before,” as a preposition in a title, should not be capitalized — however, all of the book sellers are capitalizing it as such and, frankly, it would look weird if it wasn’t capitalized, so this is how it will appear throughout the review. Interestingly, the title on the actual book cover is in all lowercase except the “I” in “I’ve” — I’d be willing to bet it was specifically because of this ambiguity. But, anyway–) To be fair, it does have a gorgeous and incredibly photogenic cover. It’s popped up over and over again on my Tumblr dashboard with comments on the art as well as the contents, so I decided to give it a try.
This young adult novel begins as Lara Jean’s older sister, Margot, prepares to leave for college across the pond in Scotland. Left with her dad and younger sister, Kitty, Lara Jean discovers a hatbox full of letters to boys she has loved over the years has gone missing. It’s not long before she finds out the letters were sent to their addressees, including to the boy next door, Josh, who recently ended his relationship with Margot. Although the letters were intended to be Lara Jean’s way of letting go, she quickly learns she might still have a flickering flame or two still burning as the boys come forward to ask about Lara Jean’s letters.
All right, look, I know this sounds ridiculous and campy and superficial. If you can get past the basic premise, which I realize is asking a lot, it’s so worth it. What I really appreciate about this book is that, in its incredible simplicity (particularly in prose style), it manages to get at incredibly dynamic characters and a heartfelt-yet-poignant story line. It’s very likely, at least in part, the slow start to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is what helps build these unique and realistic characters. As a set of three sisters, the Covey daughters (also known as the Song Girls) seem more like a group of real-life siblings than I’ve ever seen in fiction — the exception being Austen novels.
Though I didn’t notice when reading, it was evident to me, after, how similar this novel is to your average Austen novel. The romance plot gets at much more than romance with subtle societal commentary all while being a realistic portrayal of teenage romance. The complications and conflicts, while not apocalyptic or dire, instill a sense of urgency despite how mundane they are. Like Austen, Han injects her prose with humor and provides her main character with a strong, if a bit immature, voice. The benefit for modern and young readers here is that while Austen’s prose can be dense and long-winded, Han’s prose uses simple (but very effective) sentence structure and a first-person narrator, enabling readers to more easily empathize with Lara Jean.
In my notes for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I’ve written that the book is, “Feel-good without being gross or cliche or too fairy-tale” and that it’s “like Disney but grounded in reality.” Now, I’m not saying I’d totally go to a To-All-the-Boys-I’ve-Loved-Before theme park within the larger Disney theme park, but I would totally go to a To-All-the-Boys-I’ve-Loved-Before theme park within the larger Disney theme park. Photo op with Lara Jean and her sisters? Yes, please! In fact, I’d love to see a live action Disney production of this book — it’s already got the mother out of the picture in true Disney fashion. (Who am I kidding? The book is — almost — always better than the movie.) In all seriousness, it felt like Tinker Bell had sprinkled just the right amount of fairy dust on this book, making it sweet escapist literature while being firmly rooted in this place we call planet earth. I rarely see this done so well — too often, happy stories (though I can’t say this book has a strictly happy ending because reality) float out of the realm of real life and land elsewhere, providing examples that people can’t aspire to. I don’t think we should necessarily model our lives after fiction entirely, but life imitates art — or, at least it tries to. So, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is an important example of this sort of thing done well.
Let me put it another way — if I had a kid who told me they wanted to be just like Bella Swan when they grew up, I’d be a bit concerned (despite my mixed feelings on Twilight — a whole other story for another day). If I had a kid who told me they wanted to be like Lara Jean? High five! Yeah, Lara Jean makes some questionable choices but she’s a teenager whereas Bella is…a robot. Maybe.
The point is, this book isn’t just well-written and fun and enjoyable. It’s got heart and lessons and a unique sensitivity to what life is actually like. The fact that it does all of this without being boring makes it earn a high rating in my book.
❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤