My problem with teen novels epitomized in one book part 1/2

totally uneditedA few years ago, back when I was a freshman in high school, a girl I had a hopeless crush on recommended me a book. Despite having little to no information, guidelines, or knowledge of its core demographic I quickly sprung at the opportunity to have something to talk about with her. It took me about three days to finish the nearly 400-page monster and once I had finished I was left feeling more clueless and dejected than I was before. Why did I feel this way you might ask? It’s because I had realized this novel, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, epitomized all of my quandaries with contemporary young adult novels.

One thing I’ve prided authors like John Green for doing in their teenage romance novels is their uncanny ability to write realistic characters, with realistic goals, and difficulties.

As an example, I’ll use Paper Towns. Quentin Jacobsen, the protagonist of the story, at a glance, seems to be your typical nerdy teenager, hopelessly in love with a girl who seems to be way out of his league. My mistake, I think I just explained every John Green novel pre-Fault In Our Stars. Kidding aside, Quentin’s characterization is purposely very generic at a first but also painfully realistic. Should the reader decide to go deeper into the story, there’s find a very complex character with discernable flaws and contradictions. As the novel reaches its climax you begin to pick apart the logical fallacies Quentin is driven by. He makes several morally questionable decisions, abandons his friends, and actively allows his feelings to dictate his actions. His incredibly callow nature also works in tandem with the overall purpose of Paper Towns as it serves to criticize the act of idolization. Something so ubiquitous amongst teenage relationships.

The point I’m trying to make is that I could imagine Quentin as a feasible person as I read Paper Towns. He has a purpose, he has imperfections, and he has personal growth. On the flipside, the main character of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before; Lara Jean Covey, besides having an awkwardly long name, possesses one of the most ambiguous and unrealistic characterizations of all time.

On one hand, Lara Jean is written like an innocent, sheltered, perfect girl who fades into the background. However, there are points in the novel where she does a complete 180 and Jenny Han, the author, attempts to pass her off as some glorified dream girl who’s super popular, and charismatic. Lara Jean has several out of character moments it’s jarring to comprehend, let alone read. Jenny Han could have used Lara Jean’s frequent lapses to her advantage and make a complex statement about the role significant others play in our budding lives and how easily malleable we are during our adolescence. However, she makes no attempt to do so, which makes me believe she’s a bit of a lazy writer. If Lara Jean’s inconsistencies have no real purpose behind them, then they must be a mistake, otherwise, why have them at all?

I’m fully aware that people do change and that looks and that actions can be deceiving but Lara Jean explains herself so plainly it’s hard to gauge whether I should believe what she’s saying or what I’m reading. She’s so enigmatic that she breaks my suspension of disbelief even for a novel labeled as fiction. The biggest tell for me is the fact I can’t think of anyone I know that would do the things she does in the novel under the same pretenses in real life. I suppose you could argue and say that a lack of characterization is Lara Jean’s characterization. From some aspects that could be interesting but aside from that, her personality is not appealing or subversive it’s simply unrealistic and grounded in a reality so detached from the one it’s supposed to take place in. For comparison, allow me to explain a fleshed out character done right in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before; Chris.

Chris is one of Lara Jean’s friends who she spends time with on numerous occasions throughout the book. They form the “Odd Couple” as they seem to be polar opposites. However, unlike Lara Jean, Chris is a funny, defined character, with very clear flaws, and interesting dialogue. She effectively plays foil to Lara Jean’s supposed goody-two-shoes attitude and while a bit stereotypical I believe she’s a well-written character. I’ve seen many attempts to call her an unnecessary part of the novel and I couldn’t disagree more. While her role in the novel is not instrumental she is a good example of the many influences Lara Jean has in her life that ultimately affect her mindset. It’s also a good indicator that she’s not a very judgemental person as if her seemingly perfect persona couldn’t be any more emphasized.

Another qualm I have with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is its ending. As I reached page 250 I was already well aware the plot was heading nowhere, but desperate for answers I trudged onward, bitterly optimistic. To my despair, the ending was lackluster and as I closed the book my word fears were confirmed. Jenny Han had already planned for a sequel before the novel was even published and purposely made the ending unfulfilling. So unfulfilling it’s not even worth spoiling in this article. I’m fully cognizant that it’s an astonishingly difficult task to end a book. I struggle with ending every article I write on here. However, when I finished the book I felt like a fool. I felt as if I had been swindled by the punitive hands of an author I wasn’t even a fan of. Now it is true that Jenny Han did go on record saying she actually did plan for a sequel about halfway through the first book for the purpose of developing another character that was only mentioned briefly in the story. However, I could think of a thousand different ways she could have handled this dilemma without feeling the need to release a sequel.

Before I continue I should note that I actually wrote this review back in 2015 when I first read the novel. However even as time passes I still find myself resentful of this pitiful collection of paper. Perhaps it’s deeper than just Jenny Han’s inability to write something vaguely coherent, but I believe that the biggest detriment the novel has caused is the inadvertent message it’s spreading to people my age. Another reason why I continue to praise John Green for his contemporary young adult romance novels is due to his realistic approach to teenage love. To put it bluntly, they don’t know what love is. While many view Lara Jean’s fake relationship with Peter as funny and harmless I see an opportunity for misunderstanding. I believe Jenny Han was attempting to make a statement about the way she views modern teenage romance by creating a fake romance between Lara Jean and Peter, however, I think the true intentions of that message were lost in the utterly difficult translation. This is made even more muddled when Lara Jean kisses her sisters ex-boyfriend during all of this, which is a whole different story I can write a thousand negative articles on. However, I believe one more will suffice.

This is part one of a two-part series. In the next part, I will gauge whether the film adaptation of this novel is worth watching or if it falls flat on its face much like its predecessor whilst analyzing it from a theatrical standpoint. In a world so abundant with amateurish romance novels being produced daily it’s daunting this book -that had so much potential- must add to it. I suppose she really shouldn’t have mailed those letters.

Additional Reading:

The Fault in Our Towers: A TFIOS Review

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