Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Although To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was on my radar for a while, thanks to Twitter hype, I actually watched the movie first, and it definitely motivated me to read the book. I adore the movie. I think it’s so well shot that it’s nearly frame perfect. While I don’t think this is one of those cases of “the movie is better than the book”, I do think it’s a case where the movie and book are equally good for different reasons. In whatever format, though, one thing is clear: Jenny Han’s story of Lara Jean and the letters that were never meant to be sent is a lot of fun even as you fight back some tears.
Lara Jean Song Covey is a high school junior (Grade 11 for us Canadians) who mostly seems to keep to herself at school, at least at first. Her sister Margot broke up with her boyfriend just before leaving to college. That boyfriend? None other than their next-door neighbour, Josh. Lara’s childhood crush on Josh has flared up again as a result, and even as she tries to figure out a “new normal” to their suddenly Margot-less friendship, disaster strikes: somehow the letters she wrote and addressed but deliberately never sent to the five boys she has crushed on get mailed! And so, like you do, Lara Jean has no choice but to start up a fake romantic relationship with one of those boys, Peter, to throw Josh off the trail. Of course, nothing is that simple, and it isn’t long before the lines between fake love and real love are too blurry for comfort.
Man, when I try to describe the plot of this book, it sounds terribly hokey. Let me assure you that it’s anything but. Indeed, that’s the miracle of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Han’s writing, her characterization, is deft enough to avoid making this incredibly contrived situation seem all that contrived. It really helps that, although the core plot involves Lara Jean’s fake relationship, there’s actually so much more happening in this book. There’s Peter working through his feelings about Jen, Josh and Margot working through their feelings about each other, a whole family dynamic among the Song sisters and their father … this is a very rich story, and it’s the kind you can luxuriate in while you soak in a bathtub without worrying about getting lost or bogged down in details.
I’m not going to fall down the rabbithole of comparing the book to the movie and noting all the differences. However, I think one interesting change is how the movie makes it apparent from the start that Kitty is responsible for mailing the letters, whereas the book, to my knowledge, withholds this information from us until the end. (This is what happens with a first person narrator.) The audience’s awareness of the culprit, to me, really heightens the tension—Kitty, by the way, is the best character, and if you disagree, you are wrong.
Also, obviously, the endings are totally different too—again, not really here to contrast them directly, but it’s clear the movie wanted to wrap up everything neatly within the romantic comedy tropes, while the book is more honest in the sense that it leaves a lot up in the air. (I enjoyed both endings.) However, what I really like about both stories is that they are examples of subverting the trope of the male love interest screwing up with the female love interest and having to make an eleventh hour hail Mary to win her back. In this case, Lara Jean is the one who makes mistakes and has to apologize to Peter.
The book also touches more directly in places on Lara Jean’s racial background, her family, and how this influences her experiences. It’s not a huge part of the plot, but this is another example of how movies, for the purposes of time, often have to flatten characterization that is more deeply depicted in the pages of a book.
To return to reviewing the actual book, though: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has layers! The romance that drives the central narrative is important, of course, but you know I’m not all about the romance. Really I’m here for the friendship. I love the depiction of Lara Jean and Chris’ friendship. I also love the complex dynamics among the Song sisters, particularly the ways in which, as family, they fight and forgive and make up—because that’s what sisters do. Han isn’t just telling a story about a teenager who fakes having a boyfriend for a few months; this is a carefully layered story about a person who tries to hide one crush by faking another—and, predictably it turns out, this is not a great plan.
I would have liked to learn a little more about Josh’s deal, in general. Other than his tumultuous family life, we don’t get much of a sense of what he’s all about. Where does he want to go to college? What did he see in Margot in the first place? How is he dealing, really, with this break up? This whole aspect of the story is fairly one-sided: Josh is essentially a 2D love interest for Lara Jean to reject by the end of the book. (I love how the movie lampshades this so overtly with Lara Jean’s head!Josh.)
I also love that Peter turns out to be a decent dude after our initial introduction to him as a popular kid dating the popular girl. As with Lara Jean having to make amends above, this is an example of subverting common romantic comedy tropes. There’s a depth to Peter, explored in both the book and the movie, in overt and subtle ways, that makes him a very credible love interest for Lara Jean.
Does To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before deserve the massive hype it receives? No idea. Don’t really care. I read it. I liked it. Maybe I’ll read the sequel. I definitely watched the movie again between reading this book and writing this review (I needed a “feel good” story), and boy howdy is it an amazing movie. Although I stand by my sentiments in the first paragraph, I think I will say that in my case, the movie is a story I want to return to time and again, whereas this book was a great experience, but I’m not sure if I will re-read it any time soon. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth a first reading if it sounds like the type of story you want to read, whether or not you’ve seen the film.