With the release of the To All the Boys P.S. I Still Love You on Netflix this week I decided to give in and read the series. I really liked the first movie in 2018 but didn’t pick the books up then. I was smitten with the movie and didn’t want to mess with that feeling. But eighteen months later I felt the time had come.
In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before we are introduced to Lara Jean Song Covey, middle sister of three, and a dyed in the wool romantic. Older sister Margot has stepped into the mother role following the accidental death of their mom years earlier. But Margot is about to go to university in Scotland, and just broke up with Josh, her boyfriend of two years who has served as a de facto Covey sibling, so Lara Jean will have to step up to take care of youngest sister, Kitty. Kitty is sassy and the best character in the series, I love her the most. Our other main player is Peter Kavinsky, the most handsome boy in town (with possibly the largest ego) Lara Jean’s first kiss and soon to be fake boyfriend. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.
The meat of the story is Lara Jean’s love life or lack thereof. Lara Jean has never been on a date, or had a boyfriend, but she writes letters to the boys she has crushes on and puts them in a hatbox her mother gave her in order to get over the feelings. (Lara Jean is focused on protecting herself, which the series deals with over time.) The letters aren’t meant to be read, but someone sends them anyway. Peter Kavinsky, confronts Lara Jean – he’s a recipient of one of the letters – and as Margot’s ex Josh heads towards them, another letter recipient, Lara Jean kisses Peter in a moment of panic and runs. Following some drama with Peter’s ex girlfriend (and Lara Jean’s former friend) Peter and Lara Jean agree to pretend they are dating. Peter wants to make Gen jealous and get her back. Lara Jean is using Peter to show that she is over her crush on Josh. Fake emotions turn into real ones and Peter and Lara Jean have to decide what they want from each other and if they can salvage something from the deceptions.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before very quietly crafts its complex relationships, taking the time to set up the intricate web of emotions at play. Han dives into the inner life of Lara Jean. We’re with her through her ups and downs and things progress much slower. While the reader never gets inside his head, Peter has as complex an inner life as Lara Jean. The first book ends on New Year’s Eve, with several plot points that the movie adaptation resolved still being up in the air.
P.S. I Still Love You follows immediately picking up on New Years Day. Though Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship has changed from a contracted fake relationship to romantic real one, things do not go smoothly. Freshly after making up (in a scene I liked much better than the movie’s version), a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s romantic moment in a hot tub on the school ski trip (which gets pulled into the first movie) surfaces and goes viral on social media. The book expands the hot tub tape aspect of the story, giving it much of the first half of the book, which felt accurate.
Beyond the tape and all its attendant drama, Lara Jean is having difficulty controlling her feelings about Peter’s continuing relationship with Genevieve. Peter tells Lara Jean that she’s going through a “rough time” and needs him as a friend. Lara Jean internalized this as Peter putting Gen first even though he is in a relationship with her. As things get complicated, Lara Jean finds herself distracted by the appearance of John Ambrose McLaren, another letter recipient. As they begin to reconnect, Lara Jean wonders if she can have feelings for two boys at one time, and what that means about her relationship with Peter. This is a book full of teenage jealousy and hormones and misunderstandings and those great aspects of a young adult novel. The second half of the book picks up with the introduction of the Assassin’s game (I’m not a huge fan of the John Ambrose sections), which pits Lara Jean and Peter against each other and their friends. All those messy young adult emotions are in action and moving the plot the way you would expect in a well-written YA.
Unfortunately, the execution of P.S. I Still Love You is a little uneven, and weaker than the first. And my least favorite of the series. Han sells the subplot on social media bullying and sexual double standards very well, but most of the rest fell flat. I particularly struggled with Peter’s characterization. He is emotionally flat and unavailable in this one and seems unaware of how his actions affect Lara Jean emotionally, and not paying attention to how Lara Jean is negatively comparing herself to Genevieve at every turn. This doesn’t track with the character development Peter went through in the previous book. Initially Jenny Han was planning to end the series with this book and I’m glad she didn’t.
In the final book, Always and Forever, Lara Jean, Lara Jean and Peter have recovered from their temporary break up in the second book and are a real couple, dealing with real couple things. It’s spring of senior year and a staple of young adult novels comes into play: college decisions. There are also changes on the home front, when her father shares his intention to marry their neighbor, Trina. Lara Jean navigates a lot of adult decisions here, from her choices regarding college to balancing Margot’s dislike for Trina against their father’s love for his new fiancée and her own affection for her. She and Peter also get close to having sex, which is something that had not really been brought up in the books before, although the movies have been dealing with it. Han’s use of it as a plot point is handled in a way I haven’t really run across in YA and I was interested in the way it was woven in.
Overall, the series was as expected, they are sweet and funny and that’s a good thing. The plot of these three novels follow a lot of the topics that YA novels typically hit: conflicts with family, jealousy in relationships, the prospect of college, big decisions regarding life and sex and love. For the depth she manages, Han also keeps the writing light – these are incredibly quick reads, even when they are focused on serious and heavy topics. As to the characters, Peter and Lara Jean felt like teenagers — they made dumb choices and said stupid things and didn’t know how to manage their emotions or communicate them very well. The friendships, especially Lara Jean’s with Chris and Lucas and Peter’s friends on the lacrosse team, dove into the complicated networks that make up our lives. I also appreciated that Margot — who hadn’t been around while her dad and Trina fell in love — resented the engagement and wasn’t interested in the wedding, it all rings true. Thematically I appreciated how much their mother’s Korean culture and family history is woven into the books and how the strong bonds of sisterhood, which are tested several times throughout the book, are never broken. While these books are all three stars for me, I can see their appeal on the larger scale, and look forward to the third book’s movie adaptation which is already filmed and listed with a 2020 release year… so maybe this fall? A girl can hope.