There are so many layers to this book, and I’m not sure if I can adequately talk about them in a review. A jumble of thoughts is running through my mind, like a tangle of wires.
At its core, Frankly in Love is not a romance. It’s a story about family, set against the quirky background of love. (In the tradition of John Green, Nicola Yoon, and other more contemplative romances.) I definitely had my expectations for this story challenged and changed during reading. It’s a story about living with a family that isn’t perfect, one with high to ridiculous expectations, one with an ingrained history of racism. It’s a story about making mistakes, so so many mistakes.
Time passes weirdly in Frankly in Love. It takes place over two years, approximately, but without the school-based markers, one wouldn’t really know if Frank was going on this journey over a few weeks, or a few years. It’s almost a disorienting book in the way that it knocks your expectations away.
This is not a love story.
It’s a story with love, certainly, but it’s not a love story. Ultimately, Frankly in Love doesn’t spend as much time building the romance as it does building Frank. Not a bad thing, but unexpected. It’s something that will definitely mislead many readers, especially given its title, its fun colors, and its marketing. I can’t decide if it’s good or bad, but it does exist.
Frankly in Love is about being Korean-American, first and foremost. Frank, in his own roundabout way, spends a lot of time contemplating what it means to be Korean. Korean-American. American. What these mean. Sometimes it’s through an almost casual, flippant look at Korean culture and diasporic Korean culture, while other times its Frank struggling under the nearly oppressive weight of his family’s expectations and traditions. It’s more than Frank not being Korean enough or American enough or dealing with microaggressions. It’s about Frank understanding himself and what he wants his identity to mean and involve. It’s about Frank learning about his own thoughts and feelings and reevaluating what he knows about the people around him.
The diasporic influences are extremely strong, and Yoon doesn’t hold back with Frankly in Love. I don’t think this aspect was perfectly executed, but Yoon actually addresses Asian anti-blackness, especially within newer-immigrant communities. Asian racism & anti-blackness is so real, and Frank’s parents are a strong example of this.
I do think that if you’re easily triggered by this, it might be good to step away from Frankly in Love. Although it’s not the main focus, it can get irritating in the way that Frank ignores this, even though he knows it’s wrong and that he should be doing something about it. I don’t think Frankly in Love went as in depth as it could have about anti-blackness within Asian communities, but I realize that’s not what this story was about. However, the ending felt a bit like a band-aid slapped over a much bigger and deeper problem.
Another thing readers should look out for is cheating. Not intended as a spoiler, but Frank Li really started to lose his charm for me because of this. He became more real, less likeable, more flawed, which could have been the intent. I personally felt that this didn’t have to happen, and it didn’t add anything significant to the narrative besides paint Frank as a shitty person, but to each their own. There are dozens of love triangle stories that don’t involve cheating, and this combined with the fact that the romance took second string to the family and coming of age elements, this particularly didn’t end up clicking with me.
Things like this felt a little out of the blue. And other things, which I will not spoil, but will urge you to check out the content warnings for the story because there are definitely things in here that I didn’t expect from the story. I’m not convinced on some of the execution, but I will say that the ending did make me cry in public.
I think one of the reasons that Asian stories revolving around grief resonate more strongly with me than stories about grief from people of other cultures is because I know how strongly family plays a role in Asian families. How filial responsibility is emphasized. The expectations we have for ourselves that were ingrained in ourselves from birth.
It makes this stories a lot harder to bear. I started to cry again while writing this review, and I was not expecting this much sobbing around this story. It just. Physically hurts a bit in my chest, like an achy pain near my sternum, to think about. Our families are so complicated, and you can love and resent your parents at the same time. But that responsibility, loyalty to family, is still so strong and very much ingrained in many diasporic children.
Frankly in Love is not a perfect story. It’s not a perfect romance, it’s not a perfect coming-of-age, it’s not a perfect family story. It’s just a story. One about a flawed boy and this little slice of his journey during his teenage years.
Frank Li is, frankly, in love.
But he’s more than just a love story in the flesh. As things get complicated with his secret girlfriend, Brit Means, and the Korean girl, Joy Song, he’s fake dating to get his parents off his back, Frank gets further and further embroiled into the dysfunction of his family.
Love is just the start of it, and Frank will have to question how he intends to interact with his family, how he sees them, and how he wants to define himself.
Content Warnings: cheating, racism (on the page), anti-blackness (on the page), grief, shooting, guns, cancer, death, sad gays
Thank you so much to Penguin Teen for sending me an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review!