For one reason or another, young adult fiction has been my go-to genre of choice lately. For the most part, I’m finding these books to be incredibly diverse, interesting, sensitive, emotionally satisfying, and well-written. Whether it’s lighter fare such as the charming When Dimple Met Rishi, or darker matter like the gut-wrenchingly sad All the Bright Places, I am pretty much game, as long as the premise isn’t completely focused on stuff like who’s going to prom with whom or whatever. So, going against my better judgment, I recently chose to read To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. I’d seen it on several lists and on prominent display at the bookstore, and the premise sounded mildly interesting: girl writes letters to boys she’s loved, letters get sent out, chaos ensues. I thought it would be lighthearted and fun, and to some extent it was both light and fun, but I have confidently concluded that this book is unfortunately just not very good. Normally I’d be apprehensive about making such a bold statement regarding a book’s quality, but after reading this novel and seeing how many people love it, I need to relate my experience.
To All the Boys… has almost none of the wonderful traits that I’ve come to love and appreciate about YA. My apologies to Jenny Han, who has by all accounts managed to do something I can’t, which is to sit down and write a book with a beginning, middle, and end, and also to land on some of bestseller lists as a result of the three books that comprise the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy. Hats off. But one thing she was not able to do was to create complex, appealing, endearingly flawed characters who grow and change over the course of a novel. She also did not write a particularly compelling plot. Or really complete any truly coherent thoughts that weren’t at least a little vapid. She did, however, somehow succeed in keeping me, and many others, coming back for more.
The main character in this novel is Lara Jean Song Covey, a girl whose name, like her personality, I found immediately annoying. (The declaration of her full name over and over in the story is like hearing, “I’m six and THREE QUARTERS years old.”) LJ is very close to her older and younger sisters, but when her older sister decides to go away to college and break up with her perfect boyfriend Josh, LJ is forced to reckon with the un-sisterly crush she’s always had on Josh, and we are introduced to the secret hatbox full of letters written to all of the titular boys she’s loved before, including Josh. After a huge fight with her younger sister about said sister ALSO like-liking Josh (seriously, this guy has the whole family swooning), the hatbox goes missing and all of the letters are sent out. LJ CAN’T imagine HOW this happened or WHO could have sent them out. Really, dude? (And why were they addressed? Why not write the letters, stuff them in blank envelopes, and be done?) Anyway, with her secrets out, LJ goes for a decoy boy to like, and nobody ends up working better than old friend, previous letter subject, and current hunky high school classmate Peter Kavinsky! Might she end up…actually liking him?! The rest of the story is too silly to go into. That’s all you need to know, really. You can guess what happens. Or look at Wikipedia.
The book gets points for its attempts at diversity, as Lara Jean and her sisters are three half-Korean, half-white girls being raised by their white, widower dad, who is valiantly and adorably attempting to maintain the links to the Korean culture their mother cultivated. The book, to its credit, also has overtly feminist dialogue between LJ and her sisters, which is cool in theory. But in practice, LJ’s primary focuses are boys and baking. Like, lots of tedious thoughts from her concerning the intricacies of what boys MIGHT be thinking about her, and also concerning the intricacies of cupcake recipes that have nothing to do with the plot of the book. And believe me, I love both dudes and baking, but neither one of them deserves to take up that much space in a book that has so little plot. LJ strives to have substance (she’s a feminist! She loves to bake! She volunteers at a retirement home! She is the victim of fake-sex-tape bullying! She can talk about sex, which is scary but definitely great to talk about in personal, explicit detail with your older sister!), yet she is unfailingly one-dimensional. She is a nitwit. She speaks and behaves like a 12-year-old, and she is very privileged, yet wholly ignorant of that privilege in the way a small child is oblivious to its parents’ wealth. She is like the kind of entitled person who thinks that everyone lives as she lives, and who is surprised to find that not everyone has the advantages that she has – though LJ doesn’t ever truly come to this conclusion, because everyone she knows actually does live as she lives, and there is no broadening of her horizons. There is no depth to her at all. Lara Jean is the exact same girl at the end of the book as she was at the beginning. Almost all of her struggles are of her own making, a problem which doesn’t facilitate any sort of personal growth.
Something that also bothered me about this story was that although Lara Jean lost her mom at a young age, the loss doesn’t permeate the text or her life in any meaningful way. Her mother, who died in an oddly shocking and unusual manner, isn’t as present in the text as I would imagine her being, whether in memories or thoughts, or even in just a feeling of lack or loss. Their mom is mentioned here and there, and the girls miss her and wish she was around for many reasons, but it seems that her death was so long ago that it is almost of no consequence. It’s not even simply that the girls have grown and learned to cope, which they have – it’s that the mom isn’t physically there, so she just isn’t there. I don’t know how to explain it, except to say that having lost my own mom at a relatively young age, it feels like LJ’s grief was written by someone who has never personally experienced that kind loss, and has no scope of the way it colors every day of your life, for the rest of your life. If Jenny Han has experienced this type of loss, then she has surely not translated the magnitude of that grief to the page at all. This was incredibly disappointing, because I think focusing on the effects of a mother’s death would have lent some gravity to a book that sorely needed it, and could have fostered some character growth in LJ.
The book ends on something I reluctantly call a cliffhanger. In the end, you are left to imagine what might happen next in the story, but it’s pretty much spelled out for you. I didn’t care enough when I finished the book to think too hard about what the future held for LJ and co. I just remember thinking, “well that was light and fluffy, but I definitely wouldn’t reread it.” Ultimately, I felt like Jenny Han grossly underestimated the intelligence and maturity of her readers on the whole, and I wasn’t compelled to ruminate on it after I was finished.
So imagine my shock when I not only realized there were sequels, but also that the third book in the series was in the running for the Goodreads Choice Awards 2017 (in the same category as sweet When Dimple Met Rishi? Or heartbreaking Turtles All the Way Down? Or The Hate U Give? Seriously???). Since I read this, and it’s been a while, I have truly struggled to figure out why these books are such big hits. Maybe it’s an age thing, but I don’t think I would have been impressed by this kind of writing even at 14 or 15. And yes, in my continued shock and quest for understanding, I ended up reading the whole damn trilogy. I will likely not review the other two books. Suffice it to say that it is more of the same. Little character growth, dumb life decisions based around a boy, dumb boy decisions based on idiocy, and more talk about boys and baking than I would’ve previously thought imaginable. I guess I, like Laura Jean, didn’t learn anything over the course of these books either.
All told, this reads like a middle-grade book, but has some of the subject matter of a high school-level YA novel. It’s weird. This book doesn’t seem to know who or what it wants to be.
Those who want a light read with some vaguely feminist themes, and little to no substance. Be warned that there is some pretty intense bullying surrounding a fake sex tape.
Author: Jenny Han
Publish Date: 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult
ISBN / ISBN13: 1442426705/9781442426702
US Price: $18.99