Book Review: Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

WARNING: this blog post contains spoilers.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is the third book in Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy.

Yes, I am starting with a review of (and will only be reviewing) the third book, for two reasons:

  1. I just finished this book last night, whereas I read the previous two books weeks ago.
  2. This book is the only one that has not been turned into a Netflix movie yet, so my judgments of this book are the least clouded.

In the interest of full disclosure, this is not going to be a fluffy review where I squee about how cute Peter and Lara Jean are — though, trust me, they are. In fact, the scene where Peter runs to get LJ her dream cookie in New York was a particular favorite of mine. But that’s all the fluff you’ll get out of me!

Instead, I’m going to focus more on the other aspects of the book, such as Lara Jean’s conflict over going to UNC Chapel Hill and her family’s increasingly complex relationships. This approach feels appropriate to me, because that’s how this book is: even though it ties up Peter and LJ’s romance with a neat bow, I felt like the true centerpiece of this book wasn’t their relationship at all, but the challenges of growing up and the ever-evolving dynamic between the Song sisters.

First, the Song sisters. As someone in college with divorced parents, I empathized a lot with Margot throughout this story. Jenny Han does an amazing job of illustrating the resentment Margot feels toward Mrs. Rothchilde, not revealing the cause until later in the story: Margot feels like she raised Kitty, and due to Kitty’s relationship with Mrs. Rothchilde, feels like she’s being replaced. I especially loved the scene where Kitty lashes out at Margot and later has to apologize.

Margot also grows up a lot in this story, even though she’s still a child in a lot of ways. When she stood up to her dad about allowing Ravi to sleep in the same room as her, I was torn between cringing and crying out, “You go, girl!” I think it’s clear that Margot sees herself as an adult, yet her visceral reaction to her father’s remarriage is very vulnerable and childlike. As the oldest in my own family, I appreciated this dichotomy in Margot’s character and thought it felt very genuine.

Now, for the juicy stuff: high school drama. This book put me right back into my teens. It wasn’t that long ago that I was a senior in high school rejected from her dream school — a school that, like Lara Jean, everyone expected me to get into, including my family and my peers. Jenny Han really made that part of the book feel real.

In a lot of ways, Lara Jean’s identity depends on her relationship with Peter — some ways good; some ways bad. But in this book, as Lara Jean contemplated going to UNC, I felt like I was seeing her character for the first time. Instead of making decisions for others, she made decisions for herself in a way she did not in the first two books. That’s an important part of growing up that Jenny Han manages to capture in Always and Forever.

I also liked the role that Chris played in encouraging Lara Jean to visit UNC without Peter’s approval. In high school, it’s easy to get caught up in relationships and forget about your girlfriends — I would know! I did the same thing. So, it warmed my heart that strong, independent Chris was the one to steer LJ toward the direction her heart was taking her, instead of the direction Peter wanted her to take.

And speaking of Chris, Lara Jean’s goodbye to Chris was one of my favorite parts of the story. The idea of fierce, determined Chris traveling through South America to avoid community college — and being just as scared as her peers to leave home — revealed a vulnerability in her character that perfectly encapsulates her bond with Lara Jean. LJ is one of the only people who sees through Chris’s tough exterior and honestly, that’s something we should all want in a friend: someone who senses our true feelings before we even can.

Even though I said I wouldn’t, I’m going to touch on Lara Jean’s relationship with Peter because I want to. Namely, I’m going to talk about sex. Much of the second book revolves around Lara Jean’s insecurity about sex, and more specifically about the fact that Gen had sex with Peter and she didn’t. So, while I appreciate that Peter turned her down because it made the book feel more real, I didn’t like that this conflict went unresolved.

Lara Jean’s attitude toward sex clearly evolves when she decides to lose her virginity to Peter and jumps him in the beach house, but there’s very little discussion beyond that night; though it’s clearly a big conflict between the couple, it’s one conflict that I don’t think Peter and LJ resolved, even in their big getting-back-together scene.

While I understand that sex shouldn’t be the focal point of any book, and that the beach house clearly wasn’t their time, I can’t help but feel disappointed that we won’t get to see the awkwardness and magic of LJ’s first time. I’m inferring that it happens eventually, but Jenny Han’s already confirmed that this is the end and there won’t be any book detailing the adventures of LJ and Peter in college. As a fan of the couple, I feel a little deprived!

Still, I think Jenny Han putting a big sex scene in the book would have had the effect that Peter accuses Lara Jean of: having sex to wrap up their relationship in a neat, tiny package. Forcing a sex scene into the book that has no impact on the plot whatsoever would tie up their relationship in the same way — and as Han’s ending makes clear (IMO), this is only the beginning for Lara Jean and Peter.

I feel the same way about the book’s conclusion. While I wish Lara Jean felt more certain that they would stay together, because as the reader I want them to stay together, the ending as it’s written (i.e. with a sense of uncertainty) feels more genuine and more special. Very few people actually stay with their high school boyfriends throughout college — partly because, as Margot and Mrs. Covey say, having a boyfriend in college can hold you back from a lot of experiences. In my own life, staying with my high school boyfriend wound up being a terrible idea, which inclines me to agree with Margot — but then again, my boyfriend was no Peter Kavinsky! Likewise, very few people feel sure of anything when they are leaving home to go to college, so the sense of unease I felt during the ending made a lot of sense for what I think Jenny Han was trying to say.

Of course, we can’t end this review without mentioning John Ambrose McClaren. Oh, John…. Unpopular opinion, but I don’t think he needed to appear in this book at all. I maybe would have preserved the text from John Ambrose to Lara Jean about Stormy’s death, seeing as he’s her grandson and all, but I definitely wouldn’t have included him in the beach house. What is he even doing there?! His appearance feels like it was forced into the novel by editors to pander to the legions of fans who were wondering what John Ambrose has been up to.

As you can probably tell, I wasn’t wondering — and I don’t think it was necessary to establish that John Ambrose had a girlfriend for any purpose other than to make it even more explicit to readers that the story is about Lara Jean and Peter. I can imagine that plenty of readers want to imagine that Lara Jean breaks up with Peter in college and reconnects with John Ambrose; throwing a girlfriend into the mix makes it clear that he’s moved on and that it’s not gonna happen.

So, on that note, I’ll end my review with this controversial statement: Lara Jean and John Ambrose are NOT canon, and never will be. On paper, John Ambrose might be a better “match” for Lara Jean, since he’s quiet and bookwormish — but if Lara Jean only ever dated John, she never would have experienced the tremendous character growth she did by allowing Peter to push her outside her comfort zone. As they say, opposites attract, and no two opposites attract better than Peter Kavinsky and Lara Jean Covey.

Like so many of you, I’ll miss these books and these characters a lot — but the fact that we still have one more Netflix movie to look forward to gives me hope! And also, more Noah Centineo. Always more Noah Centineo.

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