Things my teenage cousin likes:
- reading (her favorite book is The Catcher in the Rye)
- flitting from crush to crush, with 100% sincerity every time
- scarily accurate sarcasm
So it would seem natural that I get this intelligent, kind young woman To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han for her Sweet 16. Like my cousin, protagonist Lara Jean is hapa (that is, half-Asian and half-white). Lara Jean is levelheaded and a bit of a hopeless romantic: She’s written a love letter for every boy she’s ever loved since middle school and keeps them hidden in a hatbox under her bed.
Lara Jean narrates:
They’re not love letters in the strictest sense of the word. My letters are for when I don’t want to be in love anymore. They’re for good-bye.
…at least, they’re supposed to be for good-bye. Then one morning, the unthinkable happens: At the beginning of Lara Jean’s junior year of high school, all of the letters are mysteriously sent. And Lara Jean scrambles to deal with the consequences… which actually turn out to be about a lot more than just boys and love.
Led by an earnest, astute biracial female protagonist, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is sweet without being saccharine. It’s a story that delights beyond the run-of-the-mill rom-com – moreover, it’s a perfect encapsulation of what I think “diverse YA lit” can aspire to.
Some context: I had given my cousin the book after listening to Jenny Han in an interview. Since then, I’ve wanted to steal this book from her. Now that I’ve read it myself (without having had to resort to thievery), I’m all the more glad that I did!
Brave Girls, Strong Sisters
I can’t even picture next Monday without her. I know most sisters don’t get along, but I’m closer to Margot than I am to anybody in the world. How can we be the Song girls without Margot?
Perhaps the publicity preceding the book was misleading. One might approach the book thinking it’s all about the letters and the fallout. But it’s actually not. Sure, Han writes Lara Jean’s comedy of errors with the perfect mix of sweet and awkward. But the way I read it, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is more about sisterhood and knowing one’s own heart.
The inciting event takes place within an a finely-knit context of relationships and tensions, one of which is the sisterhood dynamic between Lara Jean, her older sister Margot, and her younger sister Kitty. I adored the way Han wrote their relationship, their routines, their everyday quarrels and, ultimately, their indissociable devotion to one another. Best of all, the “Song girls” are assertive go-getters, though each in their own way.
At the beginning, Margot is leaving for college, leaving Lara Jean and Kitty and their father, alone for the first time. For the first time, Lara Jean has to be a leader in her household. And at least for me, this was a turn of complexity that was way more interesting than the “love story” part, as fun a frolic as it was. Lara Jean is an awkward, thoughtful, quietly powerful main character that readers will cheer for.
So if you’re expecting this book to be 100% lovey-dovey, you may be disappointed. The story’s more complex focus is much more valuable.
The Goal of “Diverse YA”
So what place does To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before have on a blog on YA and immigrant/first-gen stories? Lara Jean, Margot, and Kitty’s mother, who had passed away years ago, was of Korean descent. It’s not clear whether their late mother was an immigrant, but the Song sisters are still in touch with their Korean extended family. Lara Jean makes some witty comments about her appearing more Asian than white, and her little sister Kitty often snacks on foods that I remember from the Asian grocery store.
In other words, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before perfectly encapsulates what I believe is a positive direction in diverse/inclusive YA lit, even a goal: That is, the traditionally marginalized identity (Lara Jean’s biracial identity) is not seen as the “struggle” or axis of conflict, neither is it completely ignored; rather, it’s a rich, finely woven part of the character’s context – important, but not seen as the entire story.
It’s a book that makes the reader believe that anyone can have a love story – not necessarily one “just like” the majority white female protagonists in YA, and not even one “just like” Lara Jean’s, but a love story all their own. All in all, this book is highly delightful and highly recommended!
Be sure to read this book, and its sequel P.S. I Still Love You, before April! That’s when the third and final book, Always and Forever Lara Jean, comes out 🙂
My beautiful 16-year-old cousin has recently decided to write her own review for this book, which you will be seeing in the next week. She’s a talented, thoughtful writer, and I’m so excited to share her insights with you all!
I’ve never met anyone else who has read this! If you have, what did you think? Do you have any recommendations for more diverse YA romance?