Today in Frustrations With Publishing: I think Frankly in Love is about to disappoint a lot of readers.

That’s not the book’s fault! At all! I think Frankly in Love is a truly wonderful book. But I worry that Penguin’s choice to market the book as essentially a gender-swapped To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is setting it up to fail.

a quick look back

Prepping for my review, I went back to some of the earliest press about Frankly in Love. The change from the original pitch to the final marketing is dramatic.

EW first broke news of the deal, which it called “one of the biggest YA deals of 2018,” the result of an “intense bidding war between 10 publishing houses.”

Frankly In Love Hardcover

(This is an exceptionally good deal for a debut author. That definitely has something to do with the fact that David Yoon is married to Nicola Yoon, author of The Sun Is Also a Star and Everything, Everything, the last of which David Yoon illustrated. Don’t misunderstand me, though—that’s not the only reason for the interest in the book. I have no doubt it was quickly recognized as a truly great book in its own right with strong sales potential.)

Let’s look at how EW described the book in that first article:

Frankly in Love is described as a fresh and relatable take on identity and race as seen through the eyes of a Korean-American teen caught between his parents’ traditional expectations and his own Southern California upbringing.”

By this account, Frankly in Love is first and foremost a book about identity and race and a character caught between worlds. In fact, in the entire article, EW makes no mention of the fake-dating plotline and does not call the book a romance. The only indication in the whole article that there might be a romance in the book is the title.

Having read the book, I’d point to that line as a pretty good description of the book’s contents. It’s not a good tagline for marketing and needs punching-up for promo, but it’s a great start.

Frankly in Love hype today

Sometime between then and now, Penguin Teen took marketing in a different direction from that original pitch.

(Smart money is on Penguin feeling unsure that they can recoup that huge investment by pitching a “nuanced tale of identity” and knows that hyping the romance is a shortcut to sales… but who knows.)

By the time Penguin dropped the book trailer for Frankly in Love in July to great fanfare, they were consistently pushing the book as a rom-com. Marketing led with this tagline: “Two friends. One fake dating scheme. What could possibly go wrong?”

The logline provided by the publisher also leads with the romance: “High school senior Frank Li takes a risk to go after a girl his parents would never approve of, but his plans will leave him wondering if he ever really understood love–or himself–at all”

The final synopsis for the book focuses on the fake-dating romance, filling in details about Frank’s identity and family as background:

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
problem, since Frank is finally dating the girl of his dreams: Brit Means. Brit, who is funny and nerdy just like him, Brit, who makes him laugh like no one else. Brit . . . who is white.

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.

That synopsis (which was my first introduction to the book) definitely led me to think that Frankly in Love is a romance with a family complication/side plot. That’s the case with most YA contemporary romance—alongside the relationship drama, the protagonist works out some family or friend problems. It sounds like Frank’s parents are the reason for the fake-dating story, but they’re not the story themselves. 

And that just doesn’t match the book I read. 

The book is about Frank and his parents. Full stop.

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 heritage, 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.

But 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 dealt. Parents who speak a different language in more ways than one. Parents who won’t be around forever.  

~ ~ ~

I’m worried this book is going disappoint a lot of excited readers. 

I really hope readers embrace it, because it’s a very special book. Maybe they’ll 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.

Are you excited for Frankly in Love? What do you think of the huge marketing campaign? I’d love to read your thoughts in comments!

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