As part of my goal to read more love stories in 2019, I decided to give To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han a chance. I really enjoyed the movie version, so I figured it was worth trying the book–even though I wasn’t really a fan of The Summer I Turned Pretty, also by Jenny Han. Well. It turned out this was one of the rare times when the movie really was better than the book.
The fundamental premise of both the book and the movie is slightly absurd–teenager Lara Jean writes love letters to her crushes, not to send them, but just to put her feelings into words. She writes them, addresses them, and then puts them away to save. But then her letters get mailed by mistake–including the one to Josh, her sister’s (very recently) ex-boyfriend. In a panic to hide her feelings for Josh, Lara Jean tries to convince him that she’s really in love with Peter, one of her other letter recipients. Peter just broke up with his long-time girlfriend, and suggests that he and Lara Jean pretend to date, to make his ex jealous and to throw Josh off the track.
Like I said, it’s kind of absurd, but worth going along with. At least in the movie, which had a lot I liked. It’s a cute, funny teenage romantic comedy, with a silly premise but believable and likable characters. I like that it has a lot of diversity–Lara Jean and her two sisters are biracial, Korean and Caucasian; besides their parents’ interracial relationship, none of the guys she crushes on are Asian. Mostly white, one is African-American (and gay). But what I liked best was that Lara Jean used her words, a lot.
I mean, yeah, the fundamental premise happens because she wasn’t direct about her feelings with Josh, but all the way through she’s really good at setting boundaries and cutting through nonsense. Every time I thought the story was going to take a turn towards misunderstandings and spend fifteen minutes going in circles, she cut right through it by just talking to the person involved. She also drew up a written contract with Peter to make clear the exact rules of their fake agreement, including that she’s not comfortable with him kissing her.
I really liked Lara Jean’s character, because she’s a teenager who’s responsible, likes spending time with her family, and doesn’t want to move too fast in a relationship–and all of that is presented as totally fine. There’s some hints in the movie that she’s on the lonely side, especially since her big sister went away to college, but who she is is completely accepted.
And then the book. It wasn’t a bad book. (Neither was The Summer I Turned Pretty.) But all the things I loved in the movie? Not so much in the book. Lara Jean feels a lot less secure in who she is, and there are a lot more comments implying that she’s “scared of life,” or too innocent, or needs to mature in some way (which mostly seems to mean, to date someone, not, you know, any other mark of maturity). She more or less stumbles into that contract with Peter, and the boundaries–the boundaries are not so good.
Peter seemed like a better guy in the movie. He respects Lara Jean’s boundaries, and also has a really awesome moment of flatly defusing a nasty rumor. He didn’t deal with the rumor that way in the book, and he nudges at her boundaries in that “it’s not overtly pressure except it’s still pressure” kind of way. Lara Jean directly says at one point that Peter has a way of getting her to do things she doesn’t want to do, which I think is supposed to be code for “he helps her be brave and find her true self” except…that’s not what it actually says, or what the evidence suggests.
And then the book ends about a chapter before it should have, in one of those really annoying inconclusive and abrupt endings. I mean, it’s pretty clear how it will all turn out, but it ends in media res (if you can use that term about the end instead of the beginning) instead of having a satisfying denouement…if you’ll excuse the literary geek terms. Apparently there’s a sequel (and a third book) but still an unsatisfying ending.
So. The movie was a slightly silly teenage romantic comedy that also had a lot of things I’d really like all future romantic stories to have (diversity! respect! healthy boundaries! actual words to resolve misunderstandings!) The book was a slightly silly teenage romantic comedy that was pretty much typical of the genre, with nothing so unsettling as to make me throw the book across the room, but nothing to elevate it from the average either.
It’s one of those rare cases where I have to reverse the usual form and say: watch the movie, don’t read the book.