I Still Love “P.S. I Still Love You”

Jenny Han’s widely loved To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before introduces us to hopeless romantic and scaredy-cat Lara Jean Song Covey, who moons over her crushes in secret, terrified of little more than to have her feelings known. Letters, her charmingly analog method of wrangling her heart’s desires, are in order for every object of affection. Never to be read, they contain her vulnerabilities, longings, and deepest, most embarrassing secrets. They remain hidden in a hatbox, nestled in the recesses of her closet. Until they aren’t. Chaos ensues.

In the fallout of this disaster, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before gives us fake-dating goodness, high school nostalgia, and a really genuine instance of character development––as Lara Jean emerges from her shell, we really want to root for her, and though a lot of her growth is romantic, it also manifests elsewhere, yielding a full portrait that, along with Han’s conversational, detail-oriented writing, feels real, albeit in a reality with brighter colors, warmer feelings, and far fewer dark nights of the soul.

By the time of P. S. I Still Love You, set in January and February of Lara Jean’s junior year (To All The Boys starts in September), Lara Jean is dating one of the recipients of the forbidden letters (Peter Kavinsky, a lacrosse player), close friends with another (Lucas, who she danced with at homecoming freshman year), and has reconciled things with a third (Josh, her neighbor, and sister’s ex-boyfriend). One letter met the wrong address and has since returned, but another’s whereabouts are still unknown, addressed to one nerdy and subdued John Ambrose McClaren, yet to garner a reply.

Some tension in the first act of the book arises from romantic misunderstandings between Lara Jean and Peter––for one thing, he’s still rather close to his ex, Genevieve, and for another, there’s a video of Lara Jean and Peter’s first for-real kiss going around on social media, and the rumor mill has latched onto word that it went beyond kissing, smacking the two with looks of suspicion from classmates, unsolicited words of advice from adults, and campus meme status, which, Han, for all of her allegiance to slightly outdated popularity- and mean girl-based school politics, manages to depict pretty faithfully.

This subplot, which was bumped back to the third act of To All The Boys in the 2018 film adaptation, provokes some petty drama among the characters that can feel trite on occasion, especially with regards to Genevieve, but Han often takes care to make sure it comes from a deeper place, and paints insightful pictures of all the interactions that build up to a big spat––all the little decisions Lara Jean makes when she’s with Peter, to let things slide, to swallow her objections––and it’s ultimately really convincing when the consequences of these moments add up, and boil over.

But the tension in P.S. I Still Love You, possibly as a symptom of YA’s early-2010’s love triangle boom, is at its best when yet another love interest is added to the mix, in the form of the missing fifth addressee, John Ambrose McClaren.

He enters the happenings rather late for a supporting figure so crucial, but the way Han offers him as a foil for Peter is well-suited to the task at hand, both in terms of personality, as a more observant, mild-mannered alternative to Peter’s boisterous, jockish sensibilities, and in terms of relationship progression, offering a squeaky-clean, early phase relief from the complications time has given Lara Jean’s relationship with Peter.

How Han resolves these contradictions makes sense for her goals and for Lara Jean’s needs as a character, but she neglects to give both relationships proper time for their culminations. Instead, the third act of P. S. I Still Love You feels like it’s been slashed through the middle and hastily stitched together in the aftermath. After making a key decision, Lara Jean has time to feel only fleeting regret before going back on it, her connection with John doesn’t have enough space to mature, and things overall get resolved in a hurry, as if P. S. I Still Love You is trying desperately to alienate itself from uncertainty, even though that same uncertainty is what made its predecessor so rich.

But it has one particular element to its name that does give it an ever-so slight leg up. With John Ambrose’s reply comes the bitter pang of nostalgia––Lara Jean, Peter, John Ambrose, and Genevieve all used to be friends back in middle school, and Han pays the most compassionate, delicate attention to the painful fraying of these bonds, particularly for someone as prone to living in the past as Lara Jean. As in everything else that makes this series so delectable, it’s all in the details. The buried time capsule. The friendship bracelets. The words left unsaid.

Tell me what you think! Hit me up in the comments
Next week: I go off about Avatar: The Last Airbender.

“The Black Key” Sticks a Shaky But Satisfying Landing

Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

A young woman fights to topple an exploitative regime in the final book of Amy Ewing’s Lone City Trilogy, The Black Key. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits for components used in a long trail of links starting with this post.

After two books of world-building and lead-up, The Black Key carries the corrupt royal leadership of the Lone City to its foregone conclusion: a decisive rebel victory. Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

As it takes the forefront in the third installment, Ewing’s long-awaited rebellion emerges astonishingly simple for all of the hopes resting on it. As it rages on and accomplishes its plans in a single day, the book introduces obstacles that our lead, Violet, and her ample, well-trained ensemble, efficiently push out of the way. In the darkest hours of her fight, no one is ever really cornered; no situation ever truly dire. Ewing gets her characters in trouble plenty, but in all save a few circumstances, it never truly sticks.

There’s reason, though, that the long and arduous process of a massive political shift is condensed in this book. The government Violet and company have to topple is a city with a very small elite and not a massive, war-ready national federation, and Ewing has one tool on her side that most authors in dystopia don’t: her rebels can use magic to literally move the Earth beneath their feet, and a massive united front of discontent for the taking. With a bit more complexity, a bit more flesh, a bit more bite, the rebellion in The Black Key could’ve been as compelling as its setup.

Instead, the finale doesn’t really make an attempt at that. The fighting is a seventy-page interlude at the end, occupying a strange middle ground between an afterthought in a trilogy mostly motivated by unspoken tension and pivotal conversations, and the ultimate focus in a story that is mostly about a coup. These two options don’t go well together, but this combination is what Ewing has to execute in her third act as a consequence of the vague last stand she kept alluding to on the horizon.

The character moments she truly excels at have to interrupt the action as it goes on, and as we endure descriptions of magic and all the havoc it wreaks, the endless violence, the movements of volunteer troops, there’s an ache somewhere for a final fate decided with groundwork, or with politics, or the backstabbing and deception book one does so well.

Tragically, this book approaches it, when Violet steals away into the ruling district, the Jewel, in order to keep an eye on the Duchess of the Lake, her old mistress. The plot never slows, however, to give her a second look, the way it did with the series opener. When a certain plot twist drops, in a character-driven scene during the final incursion, it lands without sufficient shock, exposing the Duchess’ softer side without providing ample justification. She’s woefully underdeveloped here, and makes for an unfortunate villain by virtue of it. With additional attention, maybe. But the Electress, an originally upper-middle-class citizen ascended to the throne by marriage (and, most likely, ruthless ambition to boot), hardly appears, though the loose threads of a plot from the end of The Jewel possibly could’ve facilitated it.

But where plot fumbles, Ewing’s work on the ensemble is in full form, as Violet has to tap into her empathy for other members of the working class, understand and negotiate the complicated world of the royalty with slightly more power this time, and confront the consequences of her rebellion and all it brings in closer, less abstract, more personal ways.

Because Violet is disguised as a servant in the Jewel, we see less of Ash, Raven, Sil, and all the surrogates they recruited in book two (a choice that results in less gratifying stories for the additional surrogates: Olive, due to her absence, gets the particularly short end of the stick). We see more of Lucien, Garnet, and Carnelian, though, and Ewing’s careful consideration of their circumstances is where The Black Key gets most of its insight.

Lucien, the high-ranking servant who’s been masterminding this whole rebellion business since the beginning, is a fuller and freer character than he’s ever been: if the rebellion isn’t all that complicated, its leader is. In this book, his role as an almost father-figure to Violet gets a more substantial chunk of the story’s attention, the toll this has taken on him creeping a bit more into view. Lucien’s actions in this installment are wholly and unquestionably defined by love, a motivation that would be distant, if not unthinkable, to the cynical, closely-guarded character we met in book one.

Garnet, another supporting player with an endearing and impressive character arc, gets really subtle and unique moments to reckon with his royal heritage including possibly the best moment of the book: the Duchess of the Lake’s “You’re with them? Fighting with whores and servants?” to Garnet’s, “Yes, Mother. I am.”

Garnet, having been shuffled into an uncomfortable arranged marriage, finds himself more devoted to the rebel cause than before, but keenly aware of the cost, particularly to the people around him. A few sobering scenes of this are enough to broaden the novel’s perspective: it becomes no longer about the downtrodden and oppressed rising up against their chains––now it’s that and the story of complicity at the top, with an entire class of people quietly suffering.

Carnelian, the Duchess’ niece, whom the Duchess constantly berates for her humble upbringing, also adds a tinge of flavor to this perspective, and becomes the fascinating, morally-grey figure that the Duchess herself once played. When Carnelian’s last moments in the novel come, though, they’re thoroughly earned. It’s enough to make you wish the rest of The Black Key were given that same luxury.