I recently realized that many protagonists in books and shows I loved growing up didn’t have siblings. Hermione is an only child, as is Rory Gilmore, Hazel Grace Lancaster, and Glee‘s Rachel, Quinn, Santana, and Brittany (or their siblings did not appear in the story). Katniss’ relationship to her sister Prim was pivotal to The Hunger Games but their interaction was limited to very few pages. Unlike these examples, Jenny Han’s YA novels, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and its sequel, P.S. I Still Love You, stand out for their focus on the relationships between sisters.
Han introduces us to the self-described Song girls, three sisters who share their mom’s last name as their middle name and a source of identity. Lara Jean, the main character, is a high school junior who daydreams about Paris vacations and fancy dresses, but is seen as studious and not someone who takes risks. Margot is starting college and is pragmatic about everything, including her breakup with her high school sweetheart. Kitty is nine-years-old, carefree, and barely remembers their mom who died six years ago, except from stories told by her sisters.
Some of my favorite scenes are when Lara Jean and Kitty are lounging at home. After Margot leaves for college, Lara Jean asks Kitty, “On a scale of one to ten, how badly do you miss Gogo (Margot)?” Kitty thinks for a moment and replies, “A six point five.” “Only a six point five?” “Yeah, I’ve been really busy. I’ve hardly had time to miss Margot. You know, if you got out more, maybe you wouldn’t miss her so much.” Despite their significant age gap, Lara Jean never patronizes Kitty, and Kitty often doles out the best advice.
Lara Jean’s nonstop respect for her sisters is so different from how sisters are treated in many fictional franchises. Lena and Effie’s relationship in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants tilts toward jealousy and competition. In Divergent, Tris’ brother, Caleb, prioritizes everyone’s opinions except hers. In the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before duology, Lara Jean constantly weighs her actions and even potential romances by how her sisters will react. She feels guilty about distancing herself from one love interest, Peter, in part because Kitty idolizes him.
Even if all of the romantic plotlines were removed from Han’s series, the Song girls’ lives and conversations would be endlessly entertaining. Early in the first book, Margot instructs her sisters, “And you both have to take care of Daddy. …And make sure you buy coffee filters—you’re always forgetting to buy coffee filters.” Kitty and Lara Jean chime in unison, “Yes, drill sergeant.” Han doesn’t depend on romance, trauma, or anything extraordinary to reveal her characters’ personalities. Lara Jean’s downtime with her sisters is her emotional safe space, and we the readers are privileged to share it with her.
Like most readers who pick up To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and P.S. I Still Love You, I expected the cute first dates and nervous slow-dancing. What I didn’t expect was the thoughtful and multifaceted exploration of sisterhood. The Song sisters are memorable characters, and Jenny Han’s duology is a delight to read.