It only took seven years and the whole movie trilogy being released for me to finally pick up this book.
Yes, that’s right, I’ve owned To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (which will now be affectionately known as TATBILB because I don’t want to keep typing out that title) for seven years. If that were a child, they’d be in the second grade.
I’ve had this for a long time, but being someone who reads very little romance and contemporary on a regular basis, it was always low on my priority list. Even when the movies came out, I said I would read it and didn’t. But it was getting ridiculous.
Seven years is too long to put off a book that isn’t super dense or challenging or intimidating. When thinking about the books I wanted to read this year, TATBILB was one of the first books on the list. It had been on others prior to this, but I told myself secretly that if this didn’t get read this year, I’d have to donate it.
Turns out, the fear of giving away a book I haven’t even read was enough to make me read it. That and audiobooks being a really good thing to have while painting and re-organizing my room.
It didn’t take me long to get through all of TATBILB and immediately download the sequels.
Title: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before
Author: Jenny Han
Genre: YA romance
Pub Date: April 14, 2022
Book 5 of 2022
Reading Time: 4 hours & 31 minutes
Date Finished: February 19, 2022
Content Warnings: Bullying, grieving a parent, divorce, mentions of racism
What Worked For Me: Character dynamics, fake dating trope, societal commentary, family dynamics
What Didn’t Work For Me: Kitty’s characterization
Having seen the first two movies, my main reason for reading TATBILB was to see what the original story was like and which version I preferred.
If you don’t know the plot, it follows Lara-Jean Covey, a biracial girl as she hides her feelings for her sister’s boyfriend, Josh. When her secret letters to all the boys she used to love get mailed out, Lara-Jean has decides to fake date Peter Kavinsky, a recipient of her letter and the most popular boy in school. All to avoid dealing with the letter that her sister’s boyfriend also received.
Though I own the physical book, I listened to this entirely as an audiobook while my room was undergoing a major transformation. It was the perfect book for that. Engaging but not requiring me to keep up with a ton of details like fantasy, sci-fi, or even a mystery would. My familiarity with the story also helped me keep track of things.
My main concern as I went into the story was that Lara-Jean might be less mature in the books. I’d heard some people say that she comes off younger than she’s supposed to be, but I didn’t find that to be the case. Rather than immature, I saw her more as someone inexperienced when it comes to romance.
It’s understandable since she’s never dated anyone. Her experience is limited to writing letters of unrequited love and pining for someone she can’t have. The things she wanted were heavily influenced by the movies she’s seen, but none of that would have made her a bad girlfriend.
The appeal of TATBILB is the concept that her secret letters got out and that every boy she loved now knows. It’s a mortifying thing and I can’t imagine that happening (thank goodness I’ve always confessed), but Lara-Jean handled it better than I would have.
I don’t blame her for not wanting to discuss the letter with Josh. Well, recently ex-boyfriend, which makes it even more complicated. The idea of having to explain old feelings is bad enough, but doing that to someone your sister dated is like asking for all the trouble in the world.
The book sheds more light on why this is complicated. It’s not just that her sister dated Josh, it’s also their history as friends before that. A friendship that perhaps could have been something more if either of them knew enough about the other gender to get the little hints. Or not so little hints.
There’s something about the way Lara-Jean approaches her feelings, giving herself closure with the letters, that speaks to a maturity within her. Knowing that she can’t continue those feelings and that she has to let them out somehow, her letters are a healthy and therapeutic way to process emotions.
It’s similar to what I do with journaling.
I think TATBILB stands the test of time in a way few other contemporaries written back then do. Mostly because it was ahead of its time and also because it acknowledges the lack of maturity in high school students.
Lara-Jean, especially, is very aware that there’s a lot she doesn’t know. Combining that with her penchant for self-reflection and you have a main character who shows that she wants to grow. She knows there’s more to the world.
Thinking back on when I was in high school, I wasn’t nearly as mature as she was in that sense. Neither were the other people around me. Some of us grew up in ways that forced us to be more mature or at least act more responsibly, but I think few of us genuinely had that kind of self-reflection.
Of course, this is a book, so it has an element of idealism to it. But I liked that Lara-Jean’s self-awareness balanced out the general immaturity of being a teenager.
The pacing of the story did a great job of letting the characters and plot grow as it should too. I liked how it paused more to give Lara-Jean time to reflect, something that’s hard to do in a movie. And I liked that I got more backstory to her family, like what happened with her mother. As far as I remember, the movies didn’t really touch on that much.
The book version of TATBILB also spent more time developing the fake-dating relationship between Peter and Lara-Jean. It showed her reluctance to go to parties and lacrosse games, as well as his grumbles about watching old movies. There was more depth, though I suppose that’s to be expected.
It made me appreciate the growth of their romance more, I suppose.
I was also very interested in how the book version of certain characters were very different from the movie versions. Lara-Jean and her dad went through few changes, as did Gen. Everyone else was quite different.
Peter took awhile to grow on me in the book. He came off less sweet and kind, a bit more like the jock stereotype that was popular in fiction back then. Kitty was far more annoying in the books because she’s younger and spoilt. I didn’t like her at all this version of TATBILB, but I absolutely love her in the movies.
The book version of Chris and Margo were also different. Margo was way more frustrating and I think that’s partly me seeing some of myself in her as the oldest sibling. Chris was wilder in the book and less likable, sometimes also being a questionable friend to Lara-Jean. But I liked that Josh was more of a character in the book than the movie.
TATBILB also did something I didn’t expect, commenting on societal norms and injustices. Though they were passing mentions, it stuck out to me that Lara-Jean often pointed out subtle racism, sexism, double standards, teenaged pressures, and personal grief. It challenged what people thought back then and I thought it was really admirable.
Having seen the first movie a couple of times, I did think I knew where this would end, so I was pleasantly surprised to see here the book ended and what pieces would be left to the sequel to be resolved. I liked it a lot.
The ending felt like there was room for the story to grow and continue, whereas the movie allowed itself to conclude as a standalone. Regardless, both versions of TATBILB are really great and I have no problems recommending it to people.
Though it took me so long to read the book, I’m glad I waited this long. I think I’m able to appreciate TATBILB in a different way. More like a reflection of what my own teenage years were and how this represents how massive everything felt back then.
Being older lets me look at this less as a romance trilogy and more of a Bildungsroman - a coming of age story. Yes, there is romance heavily at the center, but I felt more like I was watching someone grow up and learn.
The true testament of how much I enjoyed this was me immediately downloaded the sequels on Audible and making sure I’d be able to listen to both of them in March. As someone who is terrible about finishing series, going through this so quickly says a lot.
I’m glad I finally read TATBILB. Finishing it made me want to re-watch the first two movies and finally get around to the third one. I still haven’t done that, but at some point this year, I’ll make it happen.