“Do you think there's a difference? Between belonging with and belonging to?”
- Jenny Han, To All the Boys I've Loved Before
What turns you off from a book? For me, it’s a title like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Sounds harsh, I know. I hardcore judged this book by its title. Everything about it just screamed THIS IS NOT FOR ME!
Maybe it’s because “all the boys” implies some kind of naievity—nothing wrong with loving people, but as a teenager, has our main character Lara Jean really been in love that many times? And why is she writing letters?
The whole thing sounded cringey, so I avoided it.
What made me change my mind? Well, it was only $10 at Chapters. Also, it was written by Jenny Han, an Asian woman, which is awesome. The biggest thing, though, was a book review I saw on bookstagram a while back. @foldedpagesdistillery was talking about how big it was to see herself in a book—to see a person of mixed Caucasian and Asian heritage, and as the main character. Reading that made my chest tighten up. I wanted that too, to see someone like me in a book.
So I bought it.
And you know what? I… didn’t hate it.
That being said, I didn't like it either.
But before we get into things, here's the synopsis:
What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?
Sixteen-year-old 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.
Nothing about this sounds like my cup of tea. But almost every single time I see this book crop up on Instagram, it's accompanied by a positive review.
The book follows the high school misadventures of Lara Jean, a half-Korean, half-white American girl who is still coming to terms with her older sister’s decision to attend university in the UK. While To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before certainly comes across as a love story (and it is), it’s also very much about family ties and the love shared between sisters.
Many people who’ve read the book have commented about their love for Lara Jean and her sisters. The eldest child, Margot, is the no-nonsense, “responsible” one who keeps the family ticking in the absence of their deceased mother. Kitty is the tomboyish baby of the family. And of course, in-between her two sisters is Lara Jean, the bubbly middle child. Together, they’re the Song sisters, and they are convinced they have a special, unbreakable bond.
Then Margot leaves for university, and the sisters’ very tight relationship begins to strain.
I liked how Han explored the girls’ relationship at such an important time in their lives. It’s a compelling period of a young person's life and structurally, the Song sisters’ story felt like it could have a lot of interesting insights into how we change as we grow up. And it did accomplish this, I think—I just didn’t enjoy reading about it.
Ultimately I was hoping to relate to Lara Jean. I really, truly, hopelessly did not. We don't see much of her Asian side, because her mother passed away, and everything that happened that was related to her mixed heritage felt very... meh. I also wasn’t very fond of her personality: bubbly, sweetly naive, the most immature out of all her sisters (which is remarkable because Kitty is nine). She might be likeable by other people's standards—she is by all means a good person—but I didn't connect with her. I understand that she’s fifteen, but that doesn’t change my opinion. Was I frustrated because I’m too old for this kind of protagonist? I read and enjoy tons of YA books, so I refuse to accept that, but I do wonder if my fifteen-year-old self would probably have enjoyed this book more.
I also disliked Margot, who was incredibly annoying; I had no sympathy for her despite what she's been through. Nor was I fan of Lara Jean’s love interest(s), who never felt adequately redeemable. The whole vibe of the book reminded me of Stephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door, two books that also weren’t for me (though I enjoyed Perkins’ Isla and the Happily Ever After). So if you loved those books, I guess I’d recommend To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before?
This book just wasn’t right for me. Maybe in a younger life.
All that said, I do think To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a good book. It's a well-written, cute romantic comedy about something poignant and relatable (being young and being more comfortable in your own head than in reality). But because it wasn't my cup of tea, I’m going to pass on the rest of the trilogy, as well as the upcoming Netflix movie. I feel a bit guilty about it, because like I said it’s a fine story and it will feature an Asian-American actress (though she doesn’t look mixed at all?), so I want to support it. But hopefully other people will!