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recent request for clean, well-written, realistic young adult novels.
To All the Boys I've Loved Before scored a 2 out of 3. It was well-written. It was realistic. But it was not clean. It had quite a bit of language (including the F-word) and plenty of mention about sex (even though none of it was explicit and the main character herself doesn't engage in anything).
I guess maybe my expectations are what are not realistic. Is this kind of language and behavior really so prevalent in real-life high school as to be unavoidable in a book about high school? I think I'm in denial.
I'll finish up my thoughts on this in a minute, but it will make more sense if I tell you a little bit about the story first:
Lara Jean is the second daughter of three. Margot, the oldest, has just graduated from high school and is on her way to far away Scotland for college. Before leaving though, she breaks up with her longtime boyfriend, Josh, who's been a part of the family for pretty much forever. Lara Jean and Margot have always been close, but especially since the death of their mother six years earlier. Since then, they have been the ones to protect and nurture their nine-year-old sister, Kitty.
But while Lara Jean has always had a hand in Kitty's upbringing, it can't be denied that Margot has been the unwavering foundation of the family. She's capable and organized and always thinks of everything (she keeps a little notebook by the fridge so that everyone else will know all the important information as well). Their dad is pretty rock solid himself, but he is a single dad raising three daughters, so, you know, he has his limitations. After Margot leaves, the family dynamics shift a little bit as they all try to identify their new roles and responsibilities.
In the midst of the upheaval, some things happen, most notably five boys get love letters from Lara Jean (but she most definitely did not send them). You see, Lara Jean has always dealt with her crushes by writing good-bye love letters to the boys in question. She pours out her feelings, seals the letters, addresses them, and puts them in her turquoise hatbox (a gift from her mother) for safekeeping. Once the letter is written, it provides closure, and Lara Jean can move forward with her life.
Except that now, all five boys have those letters. Especially awkward is the fact that one of those boys happens to be Josh, Margot's ex-boyfriend and, rather unfortunately, the boy Lara Jean still happens to like . . . a lot. In an attempt to get herself out of this nightmarish situation, Lara Jean fakes a relationship with Peter, one of the other ill-fated recipients. And of course, that just makes things even more complicated.
So you can see, it has all the elements of a YA romance (oh, and I forgot to mention Peter's popular and controlling ex-girlfriend, but that probably went without saying), but it really didn't feel cliche to me. Lara Jean is such a likeable character. She is naive and kind and loves to knit and cook and scrapbook. What's more, in spite of all the casual talk about and references toward sex (seriously, I can't believe teenagers are engaged in this kind of thing all the time), Lara Jean herself is actually pretty honorable. She is very clear from the beginning about what she will or will not do, and she sticks to it. And that is so encouraging.
This is going to sound like I'm justifying this book's content, and I guess I am, but I've been thinking about it, and if this kind of behavior really is so commonplace in high school now, then it really is remarkable to have a character hold to a moral code. Lara Jean and Margot made a promise several years earlier about their standards, and they also knew what their dad expected of them. Those two things (deciding before they had to decide and having a good relationship with their dad) are really important takeaway messages for teens.
This all makes it sound like I think the author had some kind of an
agenda: set up a realistic scenario and then have the main character
conquer temptation. But it doesn't come across that way at all (and
that's a good thing), and I honestly don't think that was her intent anyway. A sequel just came out this year, and I'm dying to read it (this one ended with a lot of things unfinished, plus, it hinted at a relationship opening up with another one of the love letter recipients). I'm not holding my breath that Lara Jean will continue to uphold her standards (she's already discovered that Margot broke their agreement), and I have a sad suspicion that's what most readers will expect of the story.
I will also say that although I really liked most of the characters (Lara Jean especially), I could never figure out why she was falling for Peter. I liked that their relationship was so bluntly open and honest, and I also liked that the friendship that was forming underneath their charade seemed both real and meaningful. But, I never really liked Peter. He was arrogant and self-centered, and I just couldn't see that as ever changing.
What I did like was Lara Jean's relationship with her dad and sisters (and okay, Josh too). They all had such an easy and comfortable way together. And what's more, they liked spending time with each other. Lara Jean is something of a homebody and has to be practically forced to go on the class ski trip and would much rather stay at home baking her six dozen cupcakes for the elementary school PTA than go to a party with Peter. I can relate to that kind of pull from family and the home, and I loved see the way they all supported and respected one another (for the most part).
So I don't know . . . me, personally, I would have enjoyed the story a lot more without all the aforementioned content, but I can't deny that I still did enjoy it. Unlike another book I'll be reviewing shortly (one that aggravated me to no end), this one was funny and interesting and believable.
(I'm still on the lookout though for YA that can meet all three expectations. I think it's out there . . . )