Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

Published May 2, 2017 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

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?

Lara Jean returns in this charming conclusion to the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series, retaining many of the characteristics that I loved in the first two novels: a focus on family relationships (particularly that between sisters), Lara Jean's romantic optimism, seamless interweaving of Lara Jean's Korean-American heritage, astute observations of teen life, and well-developed characters, both primary and secondary. But, this last book is even better with a more mature and self-aware Lara Jean, such as this observation after a fight with her boyfriend, Peter Kavinsky: "I’m petty enough to be glad he’s not enjoying himself anymore."

The writing is the clearest of the series, with less contrivances in the plot, and characters, while complex, that also behave true to themselves.

Lara Jean shows her maturity by consciously appreciating the present instead of being caught up in the romance of the past:
When I’m old and gray, I will look back on this night, and I will remember it just as it was. Is. We’re still here. 
It’s not the future yet.
The greatest pleasures of the book, are how deftly Han captures the excitement and uncertainty of the transition from high school graduation to adult life, whether it be attending college or taking a gap year, and the bonds of sisterhood.

Lara Jean frets about the results of her college applications:
"I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do, but will it be enough? At this point, all I can do is wait, and hope. And hope and hope."
Or, on choosing from her college acceptances:
"What if I came here and I ended up loving it? What if, after a year, I didn’t want to leave? What then? But wouldn’t it be great if I loved it? Isn’t that the whole point? Why bet on not loving a place? Why not take a chance and bet on happiness?
The simultaneously hopeful and retrospective tone perfectly encapsulates how many of my graduating students must feel, year after year. Additionally, just like the best part of Frozen was the relationship between Elsa and Anna, Always and Forever, Lara Jean is at it's strongest in the scenes between Lara Jean and sisters Margot and Kitty. Lara Jean observes, "Because of my big sister, the grief I felt about growing up was less acute."

Lara Jean places those bonds of sisterhood above every other relationship, describing how she feels love and relief when Peter promises her younger sister that they will still be friends even if she and Peter break up, knowing that her sister will be cared for, and how touched she is that Peter always takes Margot's side: "Of course he should take her side. It’s his job to take her side. It shows that he gets how important her good opinion is to me, and he gets the place she has in my life."

Also joyful to see was Lara Jean and her best friend Chrissy. They're very different, in personality, lifestyle, and choices, but they making being a support for each other a priority and there's genuine respect and acceptance of each other for who they are. I think this book, a very easy read, is a satisfying end to the series. Finally, as a college counselor, I am relieved that Jenny Han got every part of the college admissions process right.

Rating: 5 stars

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