Frankly in Love isn’t the fake-dating romance you might be expecting. It is, however, an outstanding YA debut: a loving look at identity, family, and growing up.
Frankly In Love
Two friends. One fake dating scheme. What could possibly go wrong?
Frank Li has two names. There’s Frank Li, his American name. Then there’s Sung-Min Li, his Korean name. No one uses his Korean name, not even his parents. Frank barely speaks any Korean. He was born and raised in Southern California.
Even so, his parents still expect him to end up with a nice Korean girl–which is a
As Frank falls in love for the very first time, he’s forced to confront the fact that while his parents sacrificed everything to raise him in the land of opportunity, their traditional expectations don’t leave a lot of room for him to be a regular American teen. Desperate to be with Brit without his parents finding out, Frank turns to family friend Joy Song, who is in a similar bind. Together, they come up with a plan to help each other and keep their parents off their backs. Frank thinks he’s found the solution to all his problems, but when life throws him a curveball, he’s left wondering whether he ever really knew anything about love—or himself—at all.
Don’t let the book trailer and the tagline (“Two friends. One fake dating scheme. What could go wrong?”) fool you. Frankly in Love is a story about a teenager and his parents. Full stop. It’s an introspective story of identity and heritage and race, completely centered on Frank’s relationship with his heritage.
Is there romance? Sure. It’s there. Is there a fake-dating storyline? Yes… for maybe 15% of the book.
But those are the side plots. The romance is the set-up for the real story of Frank’s family, not the other way around.
So what is the book actually about?
For most of his life, Frank Li has done his best to ignore his immigrant parents’ prejudices. Even when it means he can’t comfortably bring his best friend home. Even when it means he hasn’t seen his sister for years. He doesn’t agree with their anti-black racism or Korean exceptionalism but he knows there’s no point in arguing. Frank navigates life in the hyphen by trying his best not to rock any boats.
But he can’t ignore it any longer, because nerdy, earnest Frank Li has frankly fallen in love with a white girl. He tries everything—including a convoluted fake dating scheme with a friend who is also Korean-American—to keep his parents happy.
As the end of high school approaches, even risking all his other relationships to toe his parents’ line isn’t working anymore. As Frank emerges into adulthood, he is forced to reckon with the parents he was
Yesterday, I published a whole post about the way I don’t think the marketing matches up with the real book at all. I’m worried that this book is going to find lots of disappointed readers.
I really hope readers embrace it, though, because it’s a very special book. Like me, maybe may will read it, realize it’s not what they expected, but brush that off. I hope they love the book they got, even though it wasn’t the book they were promised.
But Frankly In Love is a pretty bad romance. It’s a fantastic contemporary about family and identity, but it’s a terrible romantic comedy. And if romance is what you came for, there’s a good chance you’ll come away disappointed.
Let’s put aside my issues with the marketing and look at the book we actually have.
It’s wonderful. Frankly in Love is a heartfelt close-up of one teen’s relationship with his parents. As Frank struggles to come to terms with the parents he has (who are not the parents he might have chosen for himself), we watch him struggle to reckon with heritage in a larger sense.
David Yoon has a wide tolerance for complexity on this subject. If you’ve read a lot of my YA reviews, you’ll know that’s something I get very very excited about. Nuance! Comfort with sticky contradictions! Openness to messy complexity! That’s my jam, and something I think YA can never have too much of. Matters of love and identity are, in the words of Frank and his sister,
Frank is a first-generation Korean-American, raised in California. The book is very specific about the details of his upbringing, which allows us to deeply understand the divide between his parents and himself. Frank’s relationship with Korean culture (a language he cannot speak,
Frankly in Love flatly rejects a dichotomy of good parents/bad
Frankly in Love reminded me of Kelly Yang’s Front Desk (which I loved!), another story of the child of immigrants that touches on anti-blackness in the Asian-American community. Front Desk, which is middle grade, contains surprising nuance on the issue, and eventually ties things up pretty neatly with a call for class solidarity. Frankly in Love is a little messier than that. It’s hopeful about individual people’s capacity for change and
On a lighter note, Frankly in Love should get a special award for naming fictional brands. I’m not sure why David Yoon chooses not to name actual products and companies in the book–I recently finished Mary H. K. Choi’s Permanent Record, which has no problem name-dropping real-world bodega snacks–but the fake names are often hilarious and cleverly fitting.
So where’s that fifth star, then?
Oddly enough, the fake-dating romantic plot of the first half of the book is actually a weak spot.
I think you could completely eliminate the character of Brit Means, the white girl Frank first falls for. The way the book is written, Frank’s passing interest in her incites the plot by necessitating the fake-dating. This very long book could probably have been streamlined significantly by beginning with Frank’s idea to pretend to date Joy so that his parents will be happy and hers won’t know about her relationship. (It wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that the fake-dating plot was kept in specifically for marketability, but that’s speculation for another day. Or, yesterday, I guess.)
In the end, the romances are sometimes sweet and often funny, but ultimately both girls are just props in the drama of Frank’s family. The book only brushes the surface of their character. Their dialogue is witty and fun, but I finished the book feeling like I didn’t really know Brit or Joy.
It’s disappointing how disinterested the book is in Brit in particular. The book reads as though she’s wearing a bright yellow shirt that says “PLOT DEVICE” in all caps.
Given her position in the story, this lack of depth kind of breaks the book. We have to believe that Frank is so in love with Brit that he concocts this ridiculous lie, but then the reader has to stay with him as he completely loses interest and treats her like crap until finally (minor spoiler) cheating on her and breaking it off. As soon as she’s no longer needed by the plot, she disappears from view, and we never get to know her beyond “she’s hot and generically nerdy.”
I definitely have to note that I’m a white female reader, so I will be in danger of being overly-sensitive to a character like Brit not getting enough attention. It’s fair to take all that with a grain of salt. But I think this really does matter for the book. Frank should have come off as a well-meaning guy who made some crappy choices when in a difficult position. Instead, his relationship with Brit makes him come off as sociopathic; his capacity to manipulate her and his lack of interest in her inner life don’t square with everything else we know about his character.
The book is only marginally more interested in Joy, who I can’t really describe beyond “beautiful and well-mannered and smart.” I never got a sense of her as a person, because (again) the story isn’t about her, or even Frank’s relationship with her. She’s in the book to be a complication in the real story, Frank’s relationship with his parents. Even Q, Frank’s best friend, is a flimsy, rarely necessary character. I understand why these characters aren’t given much attention–I keep emphasizing that they’re not what the book is about–but as this is YA, I do wish Frank inhabited a more richly-drawn world of teenagers.
I received an eARC of this title from the publisher at no charge in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.