P.S. I Still Love You

In the past couple months, Lara Jean has gone from being a girl with a fake boyfriend to one with a real relationship that is at the centre of her high school’s latest gossip scandal. Probably the most romantic moment of her life so far was recorded by a jealous bystander (her boyfriend’s ex) and paraded around as supposed proof of Lara Jean’s ‘easiness’. When said boyfriend protects the ex rather than Lara Jean, it starts to look like their relationship can’t withstand the strain of reality.

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P.S. I Still Love You, by Jenny Han, is the sort of book that’s kind of embarrassing to read on the train as an adult. But I did it anyway.

The experience of reading both To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You has been one of total surprise. I did not expect to enjoy these books. Even after thoroughly enjoying the first book I still put off reading PS I Still Love You for months. To be honest that decision was largely name related. I was worried that the book would make me cringe as hard as the title.

It didn’t, because much like its predecessor, it turned out to be so much more than it seemed.

As in the first book, Jenny Han uses Lara Jean’s teen romance drama to look at some pretty big subjects. If you thought that a book called P.S. I Still Love You wouldn’t be an exploration of slut shaming, you would be wrong. The hot tub incident that caused so much drama at the end of the first book is, like Britney in 2007, a story that refuses to die. It is, also like Britney in 2007, all anyone is talking about. What went from a nasty rumour of sex in a hot tub morphed into a racy photo on Instagram, and then became a meme shared around every student in Lara Jean’s school. Peter, her boyfriend and the other half of the hot tub debacle, gets through the incident relatively unscathed.

Lara Jean and her sisters notice this. They talk about how guys can do whatever they want, but as far as teenage girls are concerned, the idea that they might be having sex is synonymous with them being out of control. Whereas, they notice, guys having a ton of sex are socially rewarded.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (or, as she’s otherwise known, my fantasy BFF), points out in We Should All Be Feminists, there is some seriously dubious logic happening here. If all heterosexual boys are supposed to be sexually experienced, and all heterosexual girls are supposed to be innocent virgins… then who is having sex with who, exactly? And yet the paradox continues to be perpetuated by both teens and the adults that are supposed to be teaching them to navigate the world.

In the aftermath of the Instagram post, many teachers approach Lara Jean to express their concerns. She’s repeatedly reminded that she’s ‘not that type of girl’ and ‘better than that’. ‘Better than what?’ she asks herself. ‘Better than who?’

Do you think any teachers expressed such concerns to Lara Jean’s boyfriend, Peter?

Of course they didn’t.

In this book Jenny Han is like Hey Teens Girls, Welcome to Sexism 101. I love her for it. What you expect when you pick up P.S. I Still Love You is a cute romance novel*, but what you get is a teenage girl learning to navigate a world built around misogynist ideas.

I could write a lot more about this book. I could talk at length about how impressed I continue to be with the skilful way that Jenny Han built Lara Jean’s narrative voice. While I don’t exactly agree with the arguments that teenagers in YA are generally unrealistic and ‘too grown up’ – honestly I think that viewpoint does a serious disservice to teenagers – Lara Jean’s internal monologue sounds genuinely young. She thinks like the inexperienced kid that she is. It’s a narrative voice that leaves room for her to grow up, which is something she certainly does through this book. Lara Jean finds that boyfriends take a lot more work than she was expecting, that it’s easy to develop feelings for an idealised ‘someone else’ and that even mean girls are complicated.

I like to think Jenny Han’s books will make me less judgemental of cringe-worthy covers in future.

*You totally get that too, don’t worry.

 

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To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has an unlikely premise. When Lara Jean decides the time has come to put a crush to bed, she writes a letter to the boy in question filled with all of the reasons she loves him, as well as all of the reasons why she isn’t going to anymore. She then places the letters in envelopes, stamps and addresses them before putting them inside a vintage hat box. It’s supposed to be cathartic.

I’m glad that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han showed up on several must-read lists, because if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I would have judged its terrible pretty girl cover and cringe-worthy title and decided that it was not for me.

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But it kept showing up.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has an unlikely premise. When Lara Jean decides the time has come to put a crush to bed, she writes a letter to the boy in question filled with all of the reasons she loves him, as well as all of the reasons why she isn’t going to anymore. She then places the letters in envelopes, stamps and addresses them before putting them inside a vintage hat box. It’s supposed to be cathartic.

One day the letters get sent out (gasp). Two in particular are of major consequence. One goes to Josh, the very recent ex-boyfriend of her sister, Margot. The other goes to notorious school dude-bro, Peter Kavinsky. Kavinsky was Lara Jean’s first kiss, and a recent dumpee of school bully, Genevieve. So that she can get out of the Josh awkwardness and he can appear unbothered by Genevieve’s dumping, Lara Jean and Peter strike up a fake relationship.

What I liked most of this book was how Jenny Han used it to study the way that Romance, the pervasive cultural beast, affects our actual relationships. From such a young age we see the build-up and break down of relationships played out over and over again in film, television and books. The bombardment of constant sexual tension means that we’re experiencing the ideas and sensations of falling in love over and over without actually… experiencing it. Jenny Han uses Lara Jean’s budding relationships to explore her fear of dealing with an actual real life boy outside of the constraints of a perfect movie script. A boy who might be influenced by shitty friends or have complex relationships with other women. A boy who doesn’t show up with perfect timing.

Lara Jean is forced to recognise that what the boys she professes to love have in common is unavailability. She realises that perhaps that isn’t so much bad luck as a defence mechanism. Over the course of the story Lara Jean learns that falling in love can’t just be hopeless admiration from afar, that instead it’s opening up to an actual, real, complicated, unpredictable human.

I read this book on a train. This is why I hated the cover quite so much, because I felt like the suits surrounding me were rolling their eyes behind their iphones and designer glasses. I thought this because even though they were in front of me I was making them into imaginary people.

I considered whether there was actually something to be learned from this book.

I think there is. And it doesn’t have to be romance specific. I think that embracing (note: not literally – people don’t like that) real life people rather than withdrawing into imaginary scenarios is something all us book people could probably do more of.

I got talking with one of the people behind the iphones. He was a true crime documentary writer from New York. He told me about how he has to acquaint himself with every minute detail of a case before he can start writing. His team sometimes have the manipulate murder victim’s families to talk to them for the documentaries that are 90% true but adapted for entertainment purposes. It sounded both great and awful. Whichever it is, I was glad that I had got to hear about it.

Really great fiction helps you reflect on your every day. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is definitely worth a read.