To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before overturns the rules of romantic comedy I learned in my teens, the hard way, from two formative and beloved works: the Doris Day musical Calamity Jane (1953) and Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813).
Despite their obvious differences (there’s nary an empire waistline to be seen in Calamity Jane and very few shoot-outs in Pride and Prejudice), both works share a reliance upon one of romantic comedy’s favorite devices: the establishment of a triangle in which a spirited heroine (whose indomitable spirit is proven, in both the Wild West and Regency England, by her willingness to muddy her dress) is caught between two potential romantic objects. Suitor 1 is charming and attractive but is eventually revealed as a cad; suitor 2 is brusque but is eventually revealed to be kind and loving beneath his gruff exterior.
When I first encountered Calamity Jane and Pride and Prejudice I was a stranger to this plot structure. In both cases, I did not recognize the genre cues and therefore failed to realize that each protagonist’s initial object of affection—Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin in Calamity Jane; George Wickham in Pride and Prejudice—is being set up as a dud. Instead, I fell hard and fast for each of them and couldn’t extricate myself.
Like a duckling, once I had imprinted upon Danny and Wickham, I couldn’t shake my affection for them, even as each plot moved inexorably towards pairing off its heroine with her rightful suitor. At both the film and the novel’s conclusion, I seethed with fury and indignation—I remember shedding hot, angry tears—at the injustice of these lively, passionate women being fobbed off with what I took to be the booby prizes of Wild Bill Hickok and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Indeed, it was precisely because I smarted so keenly on behalf of each woman that I became so tightly bound to each text.
How, you may wonder, did I manage to read each work so perversely against its grain? It was easy, really. Smooth-faced-Danny was so much easier on the eye than Howard Keel’s perpetually beetle-browed Wild Bill Hickok. (It didn’t help that I knew Keel only as the patriarch Clayton Farlow from the soap opera Dallas). Wickham was so affable and warm by contrast to stony, snobbish Darcy. I was also unmoved by Bill and Darcy’s merits. I was a teenager. I didn’t care if Darcy was an excellent landlord, or Bill an excellent shot. These dubious virtues were certainly not sufficient compensation for the many occasions upon which Darcy and Bill casually and cruelly humiliate Lizzie and Calam. I was crushed when Danny and Wickham turned out to be fickle, and it was cold comfort that Calam and Lizzie decided that they didn’t care because they actually loved Bill and Darcy. Were they insane? Had Calam and Lizzie forgotten that Wickham and Danny, by contrast to Bill and Darcy, actually enjoyed dancing?
Over the next thirty years, things changed. I became a practiced consumer of romantic comedy. I learned to notice the early warning signs that a charming suitor would later turn out to be The Wrong One, and I’d hold my feelings back awaiting the emergence of The Right One. My tastes also changed. Rereading Pride and Prejudice, Wickham’s smoothness now cloyed while Darcy’s reserve, which to the younger me signified emotional stuntedness, now bespoke depth.
The last time I taught Pride and Prejudice, about a year ago, I polled the students in the lecture hall, asking, “how many of you like Darcy?”
Pretty much all of them raised their hands, a result that genuinely shocked me.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “I’ve always found him insufferable!” I confessed. “Although, I think,” I added, “that I may finally, on this reading, be coming round to him.”
To which my co-teacher quipped, dryly, “Just like Lizzie.”
That moment in class felt like a turning point: my libido had finally internalized the message that the shiny thing was fool’s gold, and that diamonds were always in the rough. This must be what it feels like to be emotionally mature, I told myself.
Such was the hard-won wisdom with which I settled down to watch To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on the novel by Jenny Han, which quickly establishes two romantic objects, Peter (a Wickham) and Josh (a Darcy)—as I smugly congratulated myself on identifying them, almost immediately—between whom our heroine, Lara Jean, must choose. The smugness soon evaporated, however. Triggered, perhaps, by Lara Jean’s resemblance to myself as a teen (biracial, bereaved, bookish), I regressed, immediately glomming on to Wickham-like-Peter while recoiling from Darcy-like-Josh.
How can this be happening again? I asked myself. Have I learned nothing? If anything, the experience was worse now because I could see myself falling for the wrong suitor, and yet seemed helpless to prevent it; indeed, the film seemed to perversely encourage my error.
Why are they spending so much time on her relationship with Peter when he is going to disappear in the second half of the film? I wondered. Why didn’t they cast someone more charismatic as Josh?
I was watching the movie with my seven-year old daughter and my boyfriend. About half an hour into the film, my daughter’s friend came over and we had to get her up to speed. I explained to her how Peter and Lara Jean were pretending to date, she to throw her real beloved off the scent, he to make his real beloved jealous.
After a scene in which Lara Jean left abruptly, leaving Peter crestfallen, my daughter’s friend, perplexed, asked, “Why is he sad now?”
“Because he really likes her,” explained my boyfriend.
I wasn’t so sure.
“Does he?” I wondered aloud.
“Yes!” my boyfriend answered emphatically, looking at me incredulously.
“I don’t know …” I muttered.
I couldn’t shake off the lesson that my romantic-comedy touchstones had drummed into me: a man who is fun and easy to talk to is shallow, while a man who is terse and moody is deep. And deep means good.
But then, to my astonishment and delight, the film took a turn. It was a turn that so completely up-ended the generic conventions I’d prided myself on internalizing that I didn’t even allow myself to believe what I was seeing until the very last minutes of the movie.
Peter’s charm and social ease—“you’re a good listener,” Lara Jean tells him, in wonder—turn out to be symptoms, not of shallowness, but of … being a lovely fellow, while distant, aloof Josh remains … aloof and distant. In short, where, as an adolescent, my ignorance of romantic comedy’s conventions led me to misread character, with “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” my familiarity with those same genre conventions primed me to misread character in the best possible way—in such a way, that is, that my astonishment at Peter’s worthiness was matched only by Lara Jean’s.
Never have I been so happy to have misread a text. Just like the suave suitors it warned against, this plot structure led me astray by whispering glib platitudes in my ear. Still waters run deep. All that glisters is not gold. I internalized a lesson about symptomatic reading that was also a lesson about romance. Watching “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” helped me understand why it’s a bad lesson.
It’s not merely that the reflexive suspicion of pleasing appearances is as credulous, in its way, as the reflexive trust of those same appearances. No, coding male affability as fickle is even more corrosive because, when a genre that otherwise prizes linguistic facility and playfulness, elevates terse, inscrutable men, it suggests that such men are worthy by virtue of their exclusion from this discursive economy. In other words, it’s to say that good men are too deep to stoop to feminine chit-chat. Presumably, they are also too deep to enjoy romantic comedies.
Luckily for me—and for all of us—Noah Centineo’s swoonsome Peter isn’t that kind of good guy. In this respect, the film departs, winningly, from the novel from which it’s adapted. In the book, Peter is that kind of guy—or at least, his boorishness in insisting that “no rom coms” be written into the contract by which he and Lara Jean establish the terms of their fake romance, is a clever feint suggesting we have on our hands a character reminiscent of the insufferable John Thorpe in Austen’s Northanger Abbey. In the film, by contrast, it’s Lara Jean who writes in to the contract the condition that Peter must watch Sixteen Candles, while he in turn stipulates that she must watch Fight Club. The mutuality of the agreement sets their relationship on the right terms. The scene in which we watch them—Peter, Lara Jean, and Lara Jean’s younger sister Kittie—watch Sixteen Candles together is all the proof we need that the onscreen Peter has evolved from the Peter on the page.
It’s a lovely and uncanny scene that reflects back a looking-glass version of the viewer’s own experience. There we were on our sofa—one white man and three women of different ages all of whom happened to be part Asian and part white— watching a similar configuration—Peter, Lara Jean, and Kittie—on their sofa watching a romantic comedy, and specifically, the scene in Sixteen Candles in which the heartthrob Jake Ryan goes looking for Molly Ringwald’s Sam, only to be greeted at the door by Chinese exchange student Long Duk Dong, who screams hysterically and yells in broken English.
“I’m sorry, isn’t this character, Long Dong Duk, like, kind of racist?” Peter asks.
“Not ‘kind of,’” Lara Jean replies. “Extremely racist.”
“So why do you like this movie?” he asks.
“Why are you even asking that question?” pipes up Kitty. “Hello, Jake Ryan!”
Peter scoffs. “I am way better-looking than that guy,” he declares.
“You wish,” Kitty shoots back, and a pillow fight ensues.
“So why do you like this movie?” might just be the most romantic words ever uttered on film.
Why? Because Peter is genuinely curious to see the film—and the world—through Lara Jean’s eyes. By contrast, in Calamity Jane and Pride and Prejudice, Bill and Darcy are intent upon helping Calam and Lizzie see the world through their eyes, and thereby appreciate how the things that Calam and Lizzie love—things like riding and shooting and dancing and their vulgar relatives—are mortifyingly embarrassing. While the men must merely soften to be deemed fit for marriage, the transformation each women must undergo is more profound: they must acknowledge the faults of “female thinking,” in Bill’s words, and renounce their previous belief in their own powers of discernment.
Peter not only wants to learn from Lara Jean; he also appears capable of imagining why you might continue to love something—an embarrassing relative, a dated film, a much-maligned genre—even when it sometimes lets you down.
All this, and he is way better-looking.
Sarah Tindal Kareem: Quite aggressively bookish.