It has been quite a long time since I’ve read a contemporary young adult novel. It’s been so long, in fact, that I had forgotten that I’m not completely unfamiliar with the genre! When I picked up To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, I convinced myself it was the first one ever. Luckily, it wasn’t. While it wasn’t the first contemporary I’ve ever read, it’s definitely one of the first ones that I found myself enjoying to such an extent.
Romance is usually not my cup of tea, yet somehow I get an inkling for it every few years. I picked this one up because it’s an #OwnVoices title written by a Korean-American woman, and also because I’ve read some pretty decent reviews on it. While I had a certain level of expectations for the book, they weren’t that grandeur by far, which worked to my benefit as I ended up with a very pleasant reading experience. I read 300 pages of the book within the span of three days, that’s how much I liked it!
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before revolves around Lara Jean Song, who’s a Korean-American teenager, her small family, and a very special collection of letters that she had written to five boys with whom she’d been smitten throughout the course of her youngin life. These letters were personal and intimate, describing her feelings in great detail; letters that were never meant for mailing. Yet, by some mysterious slight of destiny the letters get mailed out to the boys, and this stirs up a party of theatrics that simple, introverted Lara Jean just wasn’t ready to face.
Before I get into the good, bad, and not-so-pretty, I just want to take a moment to say that I read a lot of adult fiction. It’s usually my favoured genre, or my genre of choice. With this novel, I had to keep reminding myself that this is a young adult novel; a novel written for a much younger target audience than someone in their late 20s. I didn’t want to subject the title to my mature and grouchy, old-person tendencies because that wouldn’t be fair to the book at all. Adolescents have very different romantic relationships than adults, and the makeup of their emotions and hormones are on a completely different wavelength. Also, first loves tend to be stupid and naïve due to a severe lack of experience and fear and anxiety. I think sometimes as a reviewer, I forget these things, which is never fair to the YA authors, or the stories they create. So, I took a step back this time around and opened my mind to a new perspective: the teenage perspective.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s get this thang rolling. There are quite a few things that I loved about this novel. The first is the examination of family bonds and relationships. Lara Jean has an elder sister who essentially became a surrogate mother to everyone when their own mother passes away. She’s the eldest and the most responsible, bearing the burden of maintaining a functioning household. When she goes off to college, Lara Jean really feels the weight of her shadow that’s left in her wake, and shoes that are quite too large to fill with much ease. There’s this struggle of trying to find a new rhythm for everyone, plenty of adapting with trial-and-error. This conflict that Lara Jean has within her in regards to her sister felt real and emotional. I could feel her plight and my heart could relate to her in many, many ways. I think folks who stem from a large household with sibling hierarchies will be able to get what Lara Jean tussles with internally.
While most people didn’t really care for Lara Jean’s love life, I rather liked it. There are some clichés utilised that made me roll my eyes, but for the most part, I found it intriguing. When you’re a teenager and you have that first real crush, things can get sticky emotionally and mentally, more so if you’re a timid-hide-in-your-comfort-zone type of person. Her inner conflicts with trying to figure out whom she cares for most while simultaneously trying to differentiate between what’s comfortable and safe versus what’s new, frightening, and unfamiliarly exciting was illustrated very well. As a kid, you’re not always going to pick the perfect choice, more so if that “perfect” choice comes with some complicated luggage (i.e.: an ex to a very important someone in your life).
As Lara Jean finagles her way through the forest of infatuation, she’s also faced with dealing with change. Is she changing because she genuinely wants to change herself as an individual, or because it’s what she feels she needs to do in the face of her new found romance(s)? More things that teens undergo during their HS years and more things that I thought were pretty decently shown. Nothing in regards to her choices and feelings felt unnatural, forced, or unrealistic to me, which are major make-it, or break-it aspects of contemporary young adult literature for me. There’s literally nothing extraordinary in this book and I loved it.
The most extraordinary thing, or the only thing I could even remotely call “extraordinary,” would be the letters. It’s romantic, sweet, and sounds like a marvellous idea. I’m actually a little stunned I didn’t think of doing this when I was her age. At the very least, it’s a fantastic and healthy means of coping and processing feelings to get them out of your system so they don’t sit and stew.
While Lara Jean’s naïveté did get on my nerves on occasion, especially with a particular asshole, douchebag boy, there was only one thing that I passionately disliked about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: the total and complete lack of any kind of emphasis on Lara Jean being biracial. It wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it wasn’t brought up, at all. But it does get brought up, in vague, fleeting moments and it pissed me off. I got the vibe that it was mentioned briefly to add some sort of dimension to Lara Jean, to make her more than some simple teen with romance issues. Yet if that truly was the case, then more focus should’ve been brought to it. Shedding light on how being biracial affects Lara Jean as an individual would have completely changed the depth of this novel, bringing in that dimension, not only to Lara Jean, but to the whole story as a whole.
There’s one passage where it’s mentioned as something that bothers her:
“There are very limited options for Asian girls on Halloween. Like one year I went as Velma from Scooby-Doo, but people just asked me if I was a manga character. I even wore a wig! So now I’m committed to dressing up as Asian characters exclusively.”
This is bullshit. No one should be made to feel this way, and the manner of which she just shrugs it off like it’s no big deal really bothered me, especially because when something like this happens again later, she gets so upset by it. That sort of thing can’t be a mere passing emotion, at least not when you provide snippets of it being more than that. Also, her dismissal of how she was treated, and the fact that she just adapts to dressing up as Asian characters, really sends the wrong message to biracial kids. It’s like she’s saying “You should just shut-up and assimilate to avoid the hassle of being different because being different is nothing more than an inconvenience.” Um, I call total BULLSHIT! Her family also celebrates Korean Thanksgiving, but no details are provided as to what that entails. How is Korean Thanksgiving different than regular Thanksgiving? The reason cannot be just because her Korean grandmother shows up. That would be…just no.
Aside from that titbit, I did enjoy this book. If you’re a fan of contemporary YA then you should give this title a shot. There’s a lot of good. While it’s not the most perfect or spectacular book in the world, I felt it was simple and good-natured, just a story about growing up and being a teenager. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before shows us that novels don’t have to be insanely complex or heavy to be a pleasant reading experience!
4.25 fruitcake cookies outta 5!