A Review of Jenny Han’s Always and Forever, Lara Jean (Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn
I’m reviewing Jenny Han’s Always and Forever, Lara Jean (Simon and Schuster for Young Readers, 2017), which is the final installment from the series that began with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and continued with P.S. I Still Love You.
B&N provides us, as always, with a pithy description: “Lara Jean’s letter-writing days aren’t over in this surprise follow-up to the New York Times bestselling To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You. Lara Jean is having the best senior year a girl could ever hope for. She is head over heels in love with her boyfriend, Peter; her dad’s finally getting remarried to their next door neighbor, Ms. Rothschild; and Margot’s coming home for the summer just in time for the wedding. But change is looming on the horizon. And while Lara Jean is having fun and keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding, she can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make. Most pressingly, where she wants to go to college and what that means for her relationship with Peter. She watched her sister Margot go through these growing pains. Now Lara Jean's the one who'll be graduating high school and leaving for college and leaving her family—and possibly the boy she loves—behind. When your heart and your head are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?”
A simultaneous strength and weakness of this particular work is that it diverges from the formula of previous installments: Lara Jean isn’t fighting to figure out which guy is the right one for her. Romantic tension and the triangle are effectively absent in this particular work. Instead, romantic issues derive out of whether or not Lara Jean and Peter are going to stay together because of their divergent college decisions. Peter gets into University of Virginia on an athletic scholarship for lacrosse. Lara Jean does not get in, effectively eliminating their plans to continue dating, while they are enrolled at the same school.
Fortunately, Lara Jean gets into the College of William & Mary. Though it’s not exactly next door, the distance is prohibitively far, and things get messy once Lara Jean gets accepted into University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill (off the waitlist). Ranked higher than the College of William & Mary, an impromptu trip to the university (with her bestie Chris) convinces her that the school is the right choice for her. At the same time, this college choice would move her further away from Peter, leading to yet more problems between them. The other major plotline is given to Lara Jean’s father, who has fallen in love with the neighbor across the street, Ms. Rothschild (aka Trina). They’re getting married, which is perfectly wonderful according to Lara Jean’s perspective (and her little sister Kitty’s), but their older sister (Margot), who is still across the Atlantic in Europe and now dating a new guy, isn’t so taken with Ms. Rothschild. So, there’s another issue about family unity in the face of a considerable change.
The problem of this work is that the issues do not always generate enough narrative momentum. Yes, Lara Jean might worry about how to perfect a cookie recipe or whether or not she’s going to lose her virginity with Peter at Beachweek, but nothing ever seems really in peril or at stake. Even the general spats between Peter and Lara Jean continually resolve through texting, as one character or another is quick to apologize and declare undying love the very next day. There is an interesting moment when Lara Jean, referring to something that Peter says, realizes that Peter’s unflagging devotion is only something that a teenage boy could say: it made me wonder, just for a sliver of a second, whether this book seemed to be a retrospective.
Indeed, that moment made me think that the gravity of this work might have been heftier had it been told in this fashion, with a slightly older and warier Lara Jean, looking wistfully back at a past that had gone into myth, because that's what this novel reads mostly like: a period of almost-perfect potentiality when all seems possible; nothing seems out of reach. Without the realistic tinge that this more reflective retrospective voice provides us, the novel, even with its occasional dilemmas, seems just a little too crystalline: we’re waiting for that anvil to drop. Given Lara Jean’s bubbly perspective, I have no doubts that whatever mess that she might have found herself in had this novel gone the distance, she would have clawed her way out, baking her way to a fresh, perhaps more nuanced perspective about life, love, and post-teenage devotion.
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Review Author: Stephen Hong Sohn
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook
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