Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

Title: To All the Boys I've Loved Before
Author: Jenny Han
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: April 15, 2014
Rating: ★★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

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.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before is not the kind of book I want to be caught reading on the subway. The entire cover reeks of starry-eyed girl mooning over, well, all the boys she's loved before. And yet... fanciful cover or not, after skimming the summary, I knew immediately that this was the kind of book that would resonate with me.

Let's face it. I'm exactly the kind of girl who falls in love with strangers, who invents a lifetime of stories about a person without even having to see their face, who may or may not have filled pages in my journal about what-ifs and could've-beens and where-are-they-nows. So when this book came into my library, I was beyond excited to read it.

"What is it with girls and rain?" Peter wonders.

"I don't know... I guess maybe because everything feels more dramatic in the rain," I say with a shrug.

"Did anything actually happen with you two, or were you just standing out in the rain picking up soccer balls?”

We may as well get this out of the way: To All the Boys is by no means a particularly refined book. The writing can be distracting at times. Most notably, our main character Lara Jean Song reads like a 13-year-old, even though she's a junior in high school. And I'll admit, the writing occasionally gave me some major Babysitters Club vibes. (Generally speaking, that isn't a problem for me because I'm quite a big fan of the BSC, but I imagine it's a turn-off for many other readers.)

I will note, however, that when I was 16-going-on-17, I probably sounded and acted the same as Lara Jean. It's a side-effect of living in a comfortable place – read: the suburbs – and having others around to take care of you. Lara Jean is mothered by Margot, to the point where she can't feel confident in her own decisions without some external validation. She exists in la la land where life, for the most part, is roses and daisies and daffodils. In a lot of ways, that's how I was in high school: sheltered, young, and naive. So yes, Lara Jean may have sounded like a child, but it's not unrealistic, nor is it necessarily an inaccurate portrayal of a 16-year-old girl.

Despite the writing level,  I really enjoyed this book precisely because of the characters. It is uncanny how much I identified with Margot, Lara Jean, and Kitty each. In very specific ways, too. It felt as if I could combine all of their weird quirks to form a rough picture of myself.

Also – I'm just going to be blunt here – it's nice to read a main character who is funny and silly and intelligent and sure-footed (in some parts of her life, at least) and normal and not white. I mean, how refreshing is it to see an actual Asian girl on a book cover?! I loved all the bits and pieces of culture that were embedded into this book. I constantly found myself laughing along and nodding.

Lara Jean has such a rich relationship with her family. I continue to believe family dynamics are fascinating, and while the Song family isn't particularly complex, they are still a joy to explore. I particularly adored the development of Lara Jean's relationship with Kitty – the initial clashing and then the closeness that formed as a result of Margot going off to college. The character growth in To All the Boys was an understated kind. Incremental, slow. It was made apparent only when Margot returned for Christmas break and "suddenly" Lara Jean had her own opinions, thoughts, desires. Sure, maybe it felt like nothing was happening, but isn't that how life is sometimes? You change and grow; your hair gets a fraction longer; days pass, and then weeks, and before you know it, you're different, not quite who you once were.

When someone's been gone a long time, at first you save up all the things you want to tell them. You try to keep track of everything in your head. But it's like trying to hold on to a fistful of sand: all the little bits slip out of your hands, and then you're just clutching air and grit. That's why you can't save it all up like that.

Because by the time you finally see each other, you're catching up only on the big things, because it's too much bother to tell about the little things. But the little things are what make up life.

Sadly, the ending of To All the Boys was a bit of a disappointment. It felt abrupt, to say the least. The resolution between Margot and Lara Jean seemed overly convenient. There was practically no mention of Josh, which is odd, given that a big chunk of this book was indirectly about him. Genevieve disappeared, which I thought unfair, and Lara Jean's relationship with Peter was left hanging.

According to Jenny Han, there WILL be one more book, which I hope will provide some much needed resolution. I still wish this could have been a tighter story – I'm a big fan of standalone novels; who's got all that shelf space anyway? – but I'll be generous here. This book has many flaws, absolutely. But it has many redeeming elements as well.

Margot would say she belongs to herself. Kitty would say she belongs to no one. And I guess I would say I belong to my sisters and my dad, but that won't always be true. To belong to someone – I didn't know it, but now that I think about it, it seems like that's all I've ever wanted. To really be somebody's, and to have them be mine.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before is ultimately a story filled with truths. It's a candid exploration of love and relationships. Lara Jean wonders if there's a difference between belonging to and belonging with someone – and maybe the words do matter, and maybe it's just semantics. Either way, it's a curious thing to think about. Equally interesting is the way we come to love people... the way distance can shape a relationship... the way time can corrode it.

If there's one thing that this book has reinforced for me, it's that relationships are both fragile and strong. They are malleable, never fixed. One day, a person may not remember you exist. The next, you run into them at a Model UN conference and they can't stop thinking about you for weeks. That's the allure of this book. It's a study in possibilities, and sometimes the possibilities seem endless.

No comments:

Post a Comment