High school comedies are my jam. As a child of the 90s, movies like Can’t Hardly Wait, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Get Over It, Bring It On, Stick It, and Dead Poets Society are my jam. Books like Space Station Seventh Grade (Jerry Spinelli’s first novel) and This Side of Paradise were formative. Even though I’m a bona fide adult now with a family of my own, I still have a soft spot for movies like The DUFF and Dope.
The appeal of these coming of age stories is less the Risky Business-like rompness of them, and more the bittersweet excitement of growing up and finding your place in the world. Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before rests comfortably in the sweet spot of tenderheartedness, humor, and realism. The book (one in a series of two) centers around Lara Jean Song Covey, a Korean American junior in high school. She is one of three sisters, aged 9 to 19, who watch out for one another since their mom died. The oldest, Margot, is smart and the de facto matriarch. Kitty is the youngest. She is fashionable, outspoken, and always working an angle. Lara Jean is somewhat shy but full of surprises. She’s sweet and hasn’t grown up as quickly as many of the kids around her in terms of being willing to take risks and assume her own identity. However, she has a rich inner life and it’s a pleasure to get inside her mind.
I have read some criticism of Lara Jean’s characterization – some say she comes off talking like a twelve-year old instead of a sixteen year old. I don’t think that’s true. Even as a hormone-riddled fifteen year old, I had never kissed a girl and didn’t know the first thing about what to say or do at a popular lunch table. I didn’t go parties with drinking, I didn’t do drugs, I didn’t do a lot of things. I think Lara Jean is just in that camp. It doesn’t make her immature. It does make for good reading.
The driving event of the book is that Lara’s love letters to six boys she’s loved throughout her life inadvertently get mailed, and she has to deal with the fallout. This leads to a lot of fun situations with a lot of acquaintances, including the fabled Peter Kavinsky, the most handsome and charming and vain guy in town. I think Kavinsky is written well. He’s kind of like Matty McKibben on the first couple of years of MTV’s Awkward. While the reader never gets inside his head, he has as complex an inner life as Lara Jean. That being said, I think Kitty is my favorite.
It’s a fun book if you’re into sweet coming of age stories.