It was 100% nostalgia that prompted me to put this contemporary YA on my list. I was totally that girl in middle school that wrote love letters I never intended to send. So, when I was looking for a short audio book that would be kind of a palette cleanser, I checked this out expecting a light, fluffy read, and was actually surprised by how thought-provoking it was.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Published: April 15th 2014 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Source: audiobook from library
Find: Goodreads | Amazon | IndieBound
Genre: young adult contemporary, young adult romance, audiobooks
Synopsis: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of Lara Jean, who has never openly admitted her crushes, but instead wrote each boy a letter about how she felt, sealed it, and hid it in a box under her bed. But one day Lara Jean discovers that somehow her secret box of letters has been mailed, causing all her crushes from her past to confront her about the letters: her first kiss, the boy from summer camp, even her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Josh. As she learns to deal with her past loves face to face, Lara Jean discovers that something good may come out of these letters after all.
Lara Jean is middle child. She’s not the baby, like Kitty, and she’s living in the shadow of her older sister, Margot, who has taken on a lot of responsibility since their mother died when the girls were young. When Margot leaves to attend university overseas, Lara Jean is struggling to fill in and take on a lot of her duties, from fixing Kitty’s lunch to running errands which requires driving, something that scares her.
So when her secret stash of love letters written to her crushes from over the years are inexplicably mailed to out to all the boys she’s loved—including Margot’s ex-boyfriend and the most popular boy in her class—she’s thrown even more out of her element, and left dealing with the fallout of her earnest and private musings being revealed.
So basically the worst nightmare of my junior high years. Yes, I was aware that there were greater tragedies in life, but my sheltered, small town, middle class existence insulated me from many of them, and I had so many unrequited, awkward crushes at that age.
Which is really what will make or break this book for most readers: Lara Jean’s voice here is incredibly naive and young. She sounds much closer to a middle schooler than a high schooler. She calls her deceased mother “mommy” and her doctor father “daddy.”
While this would have been off-putting had I read it with my “adult” glasses on, I was reading this as a teen librarian, and I found it so refreshing to have found a book that had a character on the young end of the spectrum. There are plenty of gritty, dark YA novels with characters that have been forced to grow up way too fast, and they are very important. But it’s nice to see something that a reader who isn’t looking for that type of contemporary story can enjoy.
The plot is a bit too convenient. It’s glaringly obvious who has mailed these letters from the beginning, and laughable that Lara Jean never suspects. But I was willing to overlook that because the story that unfolded as a result of that catalyst was so cringe-inducing and adorable at the same time. And, underneath its fluffy premise, there are some really important truths.
Lara Jean has to face some truth about the nature of her crushes.
“You’d rather make up a fantasy version of somebody in your head than be with a real person.”
“You only like guys you don’t have a chance with, because you’re scared.”
But she really has a lot of insight about relationships, even if she’s never really had one.
“Do you think there’s a difference? Between belonging with and belonging to?”
“Plenty of people are good-looking. That doesn’t make them interesting or intriguing or cool.”
“It’s funny how much of your childhood is about proximity.”
And like I said, I was kind of a quiet shy girl with lots of crushes in junior high, and I had a lot of the same feelings then that Lara Jean has in this book.
“But what now? What am I supposed to do with all these feelings?”
“Because sometimes you just feel sad and you can’t explain it.”
“No.It’s not PMS. Just because a girl is sad, it doesn’t mean it has anything to do with PMS.”
I’m surprised I was so completely invested in a story in which so little happens, or how everyday events and the intrigues of personal relationships could be so suspenseful. I also questioned the use of present tense, which didn’t seem to work all that well, but because I was listening to an audiobook, was less distracting.
This novel is almost completely dialogue that takes place while the characters do everyday things, like make dinner, fold laundry, and study. But the dialogue sounds so true. Lara Jean’s voice may be young, but it’s reflective of a certain type of girl. Her conversations with younger sister, her friend Chris, her older sister’s ex-boyfriend, and former crush all resonated. Even Peter is just such a guy. Like, I definitely knew guys like him, who were both infuriating and endearing at the same time.
I loved that this featured a character of color, where her heritage is important, but not the focus. Where she does grapple with her identity as a girl of mixed-race descent, but it’s not a plot element. Likewise, Lara Jean grieves for her mother that she lost as a young girl, but it’s the kind of everyday sadness a person who has lost a parent feels, rather than the crippling kind. It’s a part of who she is, but not the focus of the story.
I do wish two aspects of slut-shaming would have been more developed during the story. Lara Jean doesn’t at all believe that Margot could have had sex with her boyfriend in high school, and is flabbergasted when she finds out she did, and worse, didn’t tell her. I would have liked this to been discussed by the sisters at some point. There’s also a terrible, one-dimensional mean girl who is vindictive and cruel to Lara Jean and spreads nasty rumors about her, and while it was realistic, it was treated more as a plot device rather than explored as an issue that teen girls deal with every day.
Perhaps it was just the timing that made me enjoy this so much. But I found it to be a realistic and refreshing contemporary YA that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Kate at The Book Monsters: “What was truly great about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was the pacing. The events take place right before school starts into Christmas break, and it felt like it. Sometimes it felt like I was getting just day to day stuff happening, sometimes bigger things occurred, but nothing felt rushed. It was a book that I could savor, and enjoyed doing so. The family dynamic was perfect. It often added a layer of tension while the romance was taking a backseat, and then it would switch as needed.”
Cee at The Novel Hermit: “I wished I loved you, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but you just weren’t for me. You caused so much “UGHHHHHHHHHH” and “fuck offs” to emerge from my mouth. Kavinsky nearly saved this book, but not enough. I’m just not a fan of main characters that don’t sound their age and romantic interests being assholes. They were a deal breaker. Just no. I just couldn’t handle my frustration and pent up anger.”