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.
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.