I have been a huge Jenny Han fan since The Summer I Turned Pretty came out in 2009. You shouldn't be surprised by that information, since I just reviewed Burn for Burn and Fire with Fire here and I already said how excited I was to read Ashes for Ashes. So I shrieked out loud when I walked out my front door one morning, and discovered a package from Simon & Schuster. The padded envelope contained the ARC of To All the Boys I've Loved Before, along with a notebook and pen. I love getting publishing swag, and the fact that it was Jenny Han swag just made it that much better. I started reading right away (with the Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson duet stuck in my head, unfortunately). I saved my review to post once the book was published. Now the book is out so you can all run out and get it. It is also a great choice to kick off my contribution for #weneeddiversebooks within the 48 Hour Book Challenge, so I am thrilled to be talking about it tonight.
Lara Jean Song is a romantic at heart. She is the middle sister - there is an older sister, Margot, and a younger sister, Kitty. Their doctor father has raised them alone since their mother died when Lara Jean was ten. The sisters are sometimes called "the Song girls" - their mother (who was Korean)'s last name was Song, and "we all have Song for our middle name, and we look more Song than Covey anyway, more Korean than white." (p. 9) Margot grew up quickly when their mom died, and runs the household most of the time. Their father is an OB/GYN, and is unpredictable in his schedule, so the girls rely on each other. Lara Jean and Kitty are used to Margot caring for them and keeping their lives organized. Now Margot is going abroad to Scotland for college, and Lara Jean already misses her tremendously. On the other hand, she is also determined to show Margot how successfully the rest of the family can survive when she's gone. Right before Margot leaves, she breaks up with her boyfriend, Josh. Lara Jean has spent lots of time with Margot and Josh (he is their neighbor too). While she doesn't understand why Margot broke up with Josh, she has kept a secret for a long time. Lara Jean has always been in love with Josh too.
Lara Jean has a ritual for ending her crushes on guys - she writes them one last letter. "They're not love letters in the strictest sense of the word. My letters are for when I don't want to be in love anymore. They're for good-bye. Because after I write my letter, I'm no longer consumed by my all-consuming love....If love is like a possession, maybe my letters are like my exorcisms. My letters set me free. Or at least they are supposed to." (unpaged) She has kept these letters in a hatbox, and there are five of them, the latest one to Josh. So in the first week of school, Lara Jean is shocked when one of the popular crowd, Peter Kavinsky, tells her he wants to talk to her. He says a letter was mailed to his house. She can't figure out how this might have happened, and Lara Jean is mortified. Because if Peter got his, then Josh did too. And that means he knows how she feels about him still. Even though he has belonged to Margot all along.
When Josh tries to talk to Lara Jean about the letter, she panics. She sees Peter (who has just broken up with his girlfriend Gen) in the hall, and runs up and kisses him, in an effort to convince Josh that she doesn't like him at all. Afterwards, Pete and Lara Jean decide to fake a relationship to make both Gen and Josh jealous. It seems to be working. At the same time, Josh is trying to figure out where he fits, both at school and in the Covey family, without Margot there. And he's considering Lara Jean with new eyes, now that he knows that she liked him too.
While this book is created with some of my favorites subjects in mind - school and romance, it also has a strong sense of family and sisterhood, something I relate to very much. You know I see the sister relationship in Frances and Gloria these days. I've also written here about my relationship with my own sister previously. My relationship with my sister is one of the most important things in my life, and it is quite often the lens through which I see myself.
This is also true of Lara Jean. She always sees herself in relation to Margot, and Margot is a typical oldest sister. On top of that Margot feels very responsible for her sisters, and takes care of most things for Kitty and Lara Jean. The first time Lara Jean drives after Margot leaves for Scotland, she admits that her directional skills are under-developedc: "I've never had to know how to get to the mall, because Margot always drove us there. But now I have to do better, because I'm responsible for driving Kitty around." (p.33) That is a perfect middle sister quote if I've ever heard one. At the beginning of the novel, Lara Jean is bookended by her two sisters. I've described Margot, and Kitty is demanding, slightly devious, and a little spoiled. Kitty is cute, Margot is smart. There is nothing about Lara Jean that makes her stand out from her sisters when Margot leaves. She doesn't actually want to stand out - Lara Jean is perfectly content to be one of "the Song girls".
When Margot goes away to college, all three sisters are forced to rethink their relationships to each other, rethink the definitions they comfortably fell into in the past few years. For instance, Lara Jean and Margot have always babied Kitty and taken care of her every need. "After Mommy died, we all had to realign ourselves. Everybody had new roles. Margot and I were no longer locked in battle, because we both understood that Kitty was ours to take care of now." (p. 338-9) But with Margot gone, Lara Jean begins teaching Kitty some of the chores she had done with Margot previously. They had always just done them, and shielded Kitty from having to do any chores. Kitty becomes more independent as Lara Jean begins doing more with Peter and his friends, and it is a good thing.
Even from Scotland, Margot has been protecting her sisters. She doesn't want them to know how unsure she is in her new environment, how lost and homesick she feels. When Margot arrives home for Christmas break, Lara Jean realizes how much things have changed: "Is this how people lose touch? I didn't think that could happen with sisters. Maybe with other people, but never with us. Before Margot left, I knew what she was thinking without having to ask; I knew everything about her. Not anymore." (p. 294) This really resonated with me. I, too, went away to college, although not as far. But I know how it feels to see the change in your family from the outside and not be able to find your comfortable place in your family again when you return. You've changed. They've changed. Margot finally says to Lara Jean "'But then I left, and it's like you didn't need me as much as I thought.' Her voice breaks. 'You were fine without me.'" (p. 344) I have been in Margot's shoes and I know how she feels. But what I hadn't considered was Lara Jean's perspective as the younger sister. Lara Jean retorts "'Only because you taught me everything!'" (p. 344) It is a watershed moment for the girls as they see their relationship anew.
I haven't talked much about the romance at the heart of this book, which is unusual for me. But I will say this - I did love the romance here. I was surprised at how much I rooted for Lara Jean and wanted her to realize the potential of what she might have as her relationships change. She's never seen herself outside of her sisters before, and she has something to offer. To me, this book is so much more about the sisters and how they change, but it is a fun look at romance too.
These sisters can weather anything together, and I love their friendship. It was a great moment in my life when my sister and I became friends besides being sisters, and the Song girls need each other's friendship even more than they realize. Jenny Han has scored another winner.
To All the Boys I've Loved Before. Jenny Han. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014.
ARC sent to me by the publisher for review