For everybody that’s been following my writing for a while, you know that I write about love in a very literarily cohesive manner. There’s the protagonist, the antagonist, but no heroes or villains in the stories that I tell because I’m so intent on avoiding bias when I recount what occurred. I read through what I’ve written and I’m not embarrassed by it but I feel sad looking at it, as if I was in such a deep hole of my own sadness that couldn’t have ever been fixed by another person no matter what I believed at the time. I thought I was compromised in my strength, in my feminism by the depth of my emotionality but I learned as I grew up, that unequivocally wasn’t the case. My activism is more nuanced than anger- it’s rooted in nothing more or less than love. And so, I am considering Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You, a far cry from the heavy and harrowing writing of Lidia Yuknavitch but neither less important or less meaningful to me.
The books tell the story of Lara Jean Song, a Korean American teenager, whose life goes from dull to dramatic when a hatbox of letters she writes to boys she was enamored by goes missing, when they’re mailed out to the boys in question. It’s not that I related to Lara Jean in particular, she’s much younger than me, and I’m more reckless in love but there was something heavy about the lighthearted romances Han writes that drew me in and kept me reading. Lara Jean’s main love interest is Peter Kavinsky, who remains one of the few young adult love interests I don’t want to roundly slap on the face. Lara Jean writes her letters for when she’s no longer in love and I wrote letters to boys for when my love wasn’t enough and I felt obligated to prove it. As if writing down thousands and thousands words of my feelings was enough to validate my love, as if it ever was. But reading the books got me thinking about the letters I wrote to boys, the ways in which I was affected and how I affected others. Was it manipulative to send them those letters? What was I ever trying to achieve in writing such long missives? I don’t honestly know the answers to those questions.
There’s this boy who I was involved with whom I wrote two long letters to over a period of three years. The first was unsuccessful and pensive, sadder than anything I ever want to write in my life and resolutely didn’t work (let’s just say he called another girl while we were in bed together as revenge), but the second was an extended essay about everything that we were and could be, originally intended to be for a book of essays. However, in retrospect I’m reluctant to include it to be published because of how personal it is, for how vulnerable it makes me look, for how young and fragile and even hopeless it makes me look at times. I don’t want the world to realize that I was so bereft at one point because even though it’s so relatable, it also gives up a part of myself that I don’t want to forgo. I value my privacy to such an excessive degree I’m not sure I want to let the world in that much. I did send it to him though, and I don’t honestly know how he reacted to it because I never bothered to find out. I’d be simultaneously flattered and … something else I can’t fully articulate if I was in his position though. In it, I wrote:
I still worry when I see him these days though because some old habits die hard- he looks haggard for 22, slightly heavier than is natural for his frame and he very obviously drinks too much. We are not a tragedy because I refuse to be a tragedy, although he still might be one. It’s not all his fault – he’s not a devil or a saint or a harlequin romance hero, he’s just a boy, a man now I guess, but it’s not all mine either and I refuse to take full responsibility for it. We’re not children anymore and all stories don’t have happy endings; sometimes they just conclude, vivid memories blurred hard with the passage of time and we learn to live with the pain.
And I meant every single word of it. I am no longer hopeful the way that I used to be but I’m more realistic in how I hope. With him, I forgave in a way that I never thought I would have to, at least not at such a young age. All he had to do was stay with me, talk to me and love me, but he couldn’t do that and so, I had to let him go. The last thing I sent him was a row of sad faced emojis (we’re the typical millennial pair) and that’s all I’m ever going to say, except maybe “Happy Birthday” someday far away when we’re both beyond how we’ve hurt each other, if that day will ever come.
Lara Jean thinks, “Why is it so hard to say no to him? Is this what it’s like to be in love with somebody?” And she’s so young in her love; I sometimes believe it’s truer than anything else I’ve ever encountered. It’s not to say she has no emotional or romantic history or anything, but there’s a weird sense of realism to the whole story and the feelings that it evoked that I fully appreciated, especially on reading the books as somebody that’s no longer a teenager. The relationships with the Song Sisters are extremely well fleshed out, their heritage as half Korean is given appropriate weight, and their father seems like a real parent, worried about his daughters’ welfare but not interfering, rather than the conspicuously absent adult figures of other young adult books. Even with Genevieve, the so-called mean girl, she never came across as ridiculously nasty but unfortunately was far more realistic than that. She is both romantic competition and everything that Lara Jean isn’t, sort of the antithesis of Lara Jean and she can’t help but admire her for it.
“It’s hard not to get caught up in her spell. She’s the kind of person you want to like you. You know she can be cruel; you’ve seen her be cruel. But when her eyes are on you, and she’s paying attention to you, you want it to last. Her beauty is part of it, but there’s something more—something that draws you in. I think it’s her transparency—everything she thinks or feels is written all over her face, and even if it wasn’t, she’d say it anyway, because she says what she thinks, without thinking first.”
Lara Jean is envious of Genevieve and it’s obvious but her jealousy never is irrational or untoward but merely what one would expect in a 16-year-old girl in her first real relationship. I felt the same way with my first boyfriend, and honestly, I still sometimes feel the same way today when it comes to people I like. However, I tend to be far less gentle in my sentiments than Lara Jean is but I would give her a few years. But none of the characters is shamed in their emotionality and it all feels genuine despite a profound lack of explanation on the part of Jenny Han. They simply make sense and that’s something that’s definitely lacking in young adult literature.
But most of all, what made me love these books so much was the hope they inspired in me. I’m notoriously cynical these days because as I’ve said, I’ve been hurt in love before, brought down to my knees metaphorically and physically. There’s a Taylor Swift song called “Begin Again” from her album Red that I thought of when reading these books, not to mention “How You Get the Girl” from 1989, both songs that I previously disdained as saccharine, too stupidly euphoric for someone like me to relate to. “Begin Again” is about letting go of people from the past that don’t deserve us and allowing ourselves the strength to start over while “How You Get the Girl” is about forgiveness, most of all of our own selves and about abject joy, of the kind that’s never written about because nobody really knows how to articulate it. Nobody that is, except Taylor Swift.
And I’m okay again, you know. I finally have somebody that makes me keep listening to both those songs on a loop and who makes me smile when he uses emojis in texts and scrunch up in a little ball and smile into my knees. I used to not believe that this day would come but I’m wholeheartedly excited for what the future will bring and rightfully so because I’m still so very young. I deserve to anticipate, I deserve to be loved and wanted and appreciated for all that I am and ever was, and so do you.