Probably no one is going to analyze a YA contemporary series as much as I do but I have a lot to say so let’s pour out my bookish feelings out. MAJOR SPOILERS
I should start off by saying that these two books are two of my favorite YA contemporary books of all time which is not a statement I give lightly. I obviously do not rate YAC the same as I would a modern classic or a hard scifi novel but but I’m still harsh. I find that a lot of fluffy and feel-good YA contemporary like The Boy Next Door, Meant to Be, and Anna and the French Kiss are a) just not memorable, b) unrealistic c) sickly sweet or d) fluffy and cute but unsatisfying.
I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes these two so different from the others. However I do think one of the reasons is its emphasis on family. I love the family dynamics between Lara Jean and her sisters. True to form, she has a different relationship between the one with her older sister Margot and her younger sister Kitty. She looks up to Margot as a role model and has a sort of sibling rivalry with Kitty. I like that Han takes the time to develop Margot and Kitty as people who are integral to Lara Jean’s life. Most YA contemporaries color their families only as side props that have cliche roles only meant to provide some sense of multi dimensionality to the main character but they’re either just really quirky or don’t have enough of a presence for them to really register. They’re also very important to Lara Jean’s development. As we move on into the second book, we see how her sisters have moved on with their lives. Margot has settled into Scotland; Kitty has new friends and we see how resistant Lara Jean is to change; she is comfortable with the way things are and even when the people around her are growing, she doesn’t want to move away from her comfort zone in her sheltered life. I love seeing the pains but also the joys of having two sisters. From borrowing your older sister’s clothes to making up after a fight.
It’s hard to strike that perfect balance of being unrealistic and realistic at the same time in YAC. Because fluffy YAC should be feel-good but at the same time, it shouldn’t abandon all sense of logic. I like the first romances and endearing friendships and that sense of adventure and uninhibited fun. But I kind of don’t want to hear about how you’re getting grounded by your parents And I think it’s even harder with a book like To All the Boys because Lara Jean lives a relatively privileged life and her problems probably feel very trivial and mundane to a lot of people. But maybe it’s the fact that she’s worried about whether she can make enough cupcakes for her sister party the next day and that triviality that makes it feel-good. In some ways, her life is unrealistic but it’s the little details of realism that pop through (the fact that and evens everything out. I like that we can actually see her doing things at home.
Peter Kavinsky and Lara Jean are an interesting pair and one of my favorite aspects of these books. On paper, they are very much a cliche. And not just a cliche but probably one of the oldest cliches in romcoms and YACs. More Disney Channel movie, that sickly sweet, eye roll worthy trope that no one can really take seriously. Even its wish-fulfillment quality is marred by its cringey dialogue. Peter is the popular guy at school, he plays lacrosse, everyone really likes him etc. etc. and while Lara Jean is not necessarily the outcast at school, she definitely doesn’t have the same type of presence that Peter has. She’s really into vintage clothes, baking and being a homebody basically. But together I cannot help but love their dynamic. And I think most of that credit belongs to Han’s writing of dialogue. It’s snappy and fun but feels natural and graceful at the same time like something that could actually come out of a teen’s mouth. I loved their banter and their past. It doesn’t feel cringeworthy because Peter is actually a really sweet guy who is oh-so-different than the other popular jocks around him (see Hilary Duff’s Cinderella) but the fact that they both have very realistic flaws that are not even obvious at the start is just written really well. Most of the people who wrote good reviews for the 1st book really liked Peter but then totally did a 360 and ended up supporting John Ambrose in the second book because he was really nice and sweet. And I get it. Peter is honestly kind of a dick in the second book and I felt really betrayed by him sometimes especially the part when he admits that he knew Genevieve sent that video of him and Lara Jean in the hot tub but didn’t tell her out of loyalty to Genevieve. He is loyal to a fault and much like Lara Jean goes back to what he is comfortable with which was Genevieve in this case. He’s also kind of insecure at the same time but hides it behind his I-don’t-care facade. In fact, most of the second book, he acts like he couldn’t give a fuck about what Lara Jean does but then ends up getting really anxious when she appears to be moving on without him.
And much like when he told Lara Jean his mom made those fruitcake cookies when in reality he was the one that made them. He’s constantly trying to impress Lara Jean (again with the poem he “wrote” lol) but he’s also trying to hide it as if he doesn’t really want to get too attached.
In some ways, I think Lara Jean and John Ambrose would have worked really well together and if Kitty actually hadn’t sent those letters,
they might have found their way to each other considering that Peter and Lara Jean weren’t even talking to each other or were even in the same social circles (“So much of love is chance”). But I like that in the second book, we really got to test the boundaries of their relationship to see if they can make that chance work and whether they would even work together. And even in the second book, a lot of the side characters are extremely surprised when they realize that Lara Jean is with Peter (“because he’s not your type”); I thought it was interesting how maybe people had all these preconceptions about how innocent and simple Lara Jean was when there was a lot more to her than that. A lot of YA contemporaries focus on how they’ll get together but they never focus on the aftermath of getting together because YA contemporaries rarely have sequels.
Most of the negative reviews criticize this book for having a protagonist with such a young voice. Lara Jean is 16 but sounds like she’s about 14 or even younger according to the reviews. And to me, that was actually a refreshing change. Not every 16 year old matures at the same rate. In Lara Jean’s case, it kind of makes sense that she would be so naive in a way. She’s been relatively sheltered her entire life, taking tips and advice mostly from her sisters or her one friend Chris. Although I have to admit I kind of laughed when Lara Jean found out Peter cheated; her reaction was hilarious. It’s funny because in Korean dramas if she acted this way, it would be totally fine. I think it kind of speaks to the age that Americans are expected to reach “maturity”. I guess I forgive Lara Jean because she’s in high school but probably not if she was like 30. Or if there is a sense of immaturity, there also has to be a sense of maturity or growth. I really enjoy reading Lara Jean’s development, I think she’s become a little more worldly and sure of what she wants and knows about the world.
You know I actually didn’t mind the love triangle in these books because it was really about who Lara Jean would end up with that was my main concern. My concern was what she would get out of both of these boys. Obviously, John is great and near perfect to what Lara Jean wants out of a boyfriend and yet she chooses Peter again. And the love triangle is all about Lara Jean, she has to choose between the ideal version of what she wants versus trying her hand at a real relationship with a real person with flaws. I think Jenny Han also does such a great job with writing how someone like Lara Jean would act and not explaining to us how she would act or making her this very self-aware person that is going to tell you how they are changing. She changes slowly. She is hung up on comparing herself to Genevieve until the 2nd book. I think one scene that really shows this is the part when Lara Jean wants to play assassins because everyone thinks she is not the type of person to win because she’s so gullible but that just makes her want to play more to prove that she can win. It pretty much sums up who Lara Jean is.
Anyways, my favorite scenes from these books:
Halloween when Lara Jean dresses up as Cho Chang (because otherwise she is just an anime character) and Peter was Spiderman. So damn cute.
Any scenes with Lara Jean and Stormy when Stormy is giving out advice to Lara Jean and it’s just cute.
That scene in the hot tub. Not just because it was cute but because this was Lara Jean finally owning up to what she wants.
Whenever Lara Jean bakes anything or spends time together with her whole family.
I’m excited to see how this series will conclude because when we left off Lara Jean and Peter, they were finally going to go all in and I’m excited to see Lara Jean make decisions about where she wants to go after high school.
This post probably made less than zero sense (I hope my discussion posts can improve over time) but if you have any thoughts on anything I just wrote or about the series in general, don’t hesitate to comment as always. And as always, all the gifs and photosets were found on Tumblr.