In lesser hands, a novel about a girl, Lara Jean, having her secret letters she wrote to each of her five crushes accidentally mailed out, would be a fun but slight high school romp of a story. But author Jenny Han delivers something even better with “To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before”. Sure, this is a romance but more than that, it’s a story about sisters, family and the subtle way grief lingers and shapes us.
Relatively sheltered and an introvert, biracial Lara Jean is the middle child of “Song girls”. Left motherless due to a childhood tragedy the girls and their father have become a tightknit clan. Lara Jean, the daydreaming homebody of the three, has spent most of high school living a lushly realized interior life. Baking, scrapbooking, curating her closet. Lara Jean prefers to stick with just her sisters, her neighbor Josh and her room. Happy to play it safe from the sidelines Lara Jean uses her observations taken from real life to imagine relationships with 5 boys she’s known from childhood through high school including their next door neighbor and eldest sister Margot’s boyfriend Josh. With high -achieving Margot off to college overseas and her secret crush letters mailed out against her will, including one to her sister’s boyfriend Lara Jean begins the story in a state of low-key panic. Afraid that her relationship with her sister, the bedrock relationship of her life since their mother died, would be destroyed if she found out Lara Jean had a crush on her boyfriend Lara Jean finds herself faking a relationship with her childhood crush, the popular Peter Kavinsky. He has his own reasons for playing along but before long things get confusing when they spend so long pretending to be in love.
This story has been told before but it’s told well here and truly it’s the details that push this book from being just good to great. Lara-Jean’s experience as a Korean presenting bi-racial girl and her Korean heritage are woven deftly into the background of this story adding specificity and depth in the right kinds of ways. I picked this book up to complete the “The Book was Better?” square for CBR 10 Bingo before watching the Netflix adaptation and I urge you to do the same. Read this book before watching the movie. Both are super charming but all the rough, humanizing edges for almost all the characters have been removed from the movie (seriously let’s talk about Lara Jean’s friend Chris in the book vs. Chris in the movie) as well as most of the girls’ Korean-ness.