Hello all, and welcome back to Weekly Reads!
It’s good to be back to reviewing! I had a slow start getting back into reading, but I’ll get there. For now, I wanted to talk about these books together; I thought at first I’d be covering the whole series, but apparently there’s going to be a third book in 2017. This post will have mild spoilers, but given that its main premise comes from an utterly predictable fanfiction trope, I really don’t think I’ll be telling you things you wouldn’t guess.
So as I mentioned in a previous post, I picked up Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before because fake dating. It’s a trope that’s common in fanfiction: for whatever reason (usually to save face and/or make other suitors jealous), two people decide to pretend to date each other. Obviously, this inevitably ends up with them falling in actual love due to prolonged exposure (and “fake” contact). But somewhere in the middle, they’ve got to be unsure if the other person actually like-likes them or if they’re still just faking it.
It’s a beautiful pattern that throws together two characters, makes them angst about their feels, and wraps up with a happy ending. It also has the bonus side effect of really pissing off whichever characters the fake daters chose to piss off in the first place. (For whatever reason, the people the fake daters are faking at never do find out the truth about the situation.)
Are these spoilers for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before? Kind of but also not really. This is the way the trope always works. And it’s completely predictable that Lara Jean will develop feelings for Peter, her fake boyfriend and the first boy she’s ever really done anything with.
In any case, the first book sets up an amusing conflict: Lara Jean is the type of girl who, rather than putting her heart out there with the guys she likes, writes a heartfelt letter to them and then never sends it to “get over it.” Only one of said boys (Josh) is her sister’s boyfriend and a close family friend who she’s still not over, and someone sends all the letters. To avoid dealing with the consequences of Josh knowing about her feelings, Lara Jean plays it off and asks one of the other letter-receivers—a former crush named Peter—to pretend to date her. Since he’s just gone through a rough breakup, he decides he’s game to piss off his ex-girlfriend.
Here are the pros for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: The closeness and tension between the three sisters in the book feels real and well-balanced. Lara Jean’s friends (Chris and one of her other letter recipients who starts hanging out with her) seem like cool people who I want to hear more about. Lara Jean and Peter fake-dating is pretty cute; they have a good rapport. Also, the descriptions of baking do make me hungry.
Here are the cons for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Lara Jean is so naïve that it comes off as childish and/or unrealistic, and that overbearing innocence is part of how the book reaches its climactic conflict(s), which makes them feel cheap, in a way. And the love triangle(s) are both ridiculous (completely uneven with predictable endings, including people with real entitlement issues) and ridiculously awkward. (The triangle[s] including Josh are downright kinda creepy.)
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before:
Still, I mostly liked the first book, or at least felt it had some real potential in terms of the pros, and so I went on to the sequel, P.S. I Still Love You.
This is where things took a real turn for the nope. Peter and Lara Jean have unresolved issues from the first book to consolidate into a real relationship and decide early on to negotiate that. Cool! So what conflicts are left to resolve? Well, not Josh; the narrative more or less decides to forget that he exists. Given how he drives 90% of conflict in the first book, that makes Lara Jean feel pretty flaky as a narrator. (And it makes Josh feel 100% not worth the fuss.)
So P.S. I Still Love You has to throw something new in the way of our main ship, and the obstacles it chooses have diminishing returns. We get a scandal, a new love triangle, Peter’s vengeful ex/Lara Jean’s ex-BFF, and a weird round of childhood nostalgia. The scandal is worth considering; the new love triangle has decent writing but feels like a cheap reach for conflict; the vengeful ex feels like she should be shooed from the story far earlier than she is; the round of childhood nostalgia makes very little sense given how little Lara Jean seems to be invested in her old friends.
Most of what these serve to do, honestly, is make Peter and Lara Jean seem like a bad couple. They don’t communicate well with each other, and while it’s true that they’re inexperienced, insecure teenagers, they don’t seem very invested in even trying. And Peter does come off as a jerk for not hearing out and responding to LJ’s concerns when she does express them.
So the book basically makes me unship them while introducing to me another potential couple. It also introduces a “scandal” that could have consequences for LJ among peers and adults. It also makes me wonder what Peter’s ex’s motivations and problems are. And it introduces some new characters as LJ’s current and former friends. How do these situations play out for me?
Well, pretty disappointingly, on all counts. I’m sure you can imagine which couple is endgame. The consequences of the scandal are…not that interesting. Ditto the ex-person’s backstory. And I wanted more of Peter and LJ’s friends from the first book, not…more other characters.
So here’s the thing: most books are not written to contain mindbending plot twists. Even those that are can become predictable in terms of the twists you come to expect from the genre/writer/series/etc. (Just like how if you watch Elementary for long enough, you’ll be able to predict the killer most of the time after they’re introduced.) In those cases, and especially when we’re not in a genre world full of magic, dystopian futuristic junk, or riveting action sequences, it’s really the journey and the characters that count.
Unfortunately for this series, rather than building on the pros that it had (interesting characters in the first book, the cuteness between Peter and LJ, sister moments), it tried to throw in a lot of turns that just led us back to the same place. But since we all knew exactly where this road was going and the twisty route didn’t take us to any sights I wanted to see, those turns felt unnecessary.
P.S. I Still Love You:
Based on this, I’m not sure if I want to take a stab at the third book or not; it’d be great if the author found a way to build on the strengths of the first book more satisfyingly (and I like LJ’s family enough to want to see them have happy endings), but if I’m going on another detour like the first sequel, I’d rather just pretend that only the first one is canon.
Are there any duologies/trilogies/etc. where you were disappointed with the continuation? Do you ever pretend that only the first one is canon? (I am really vehement about this re: The Matrix.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll write to you again soon!