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A riveting debut novel set in contemporary Seoul, Korea, about four young women making their way in a world defined by impossible standards of beauty, after-hours room salons catering to wealthy men, ruthless social hierarchies, and K-pop maniaAmazon
This is a Korean book set in South Korea and fully enmeshed in South Korean culture. (with a brief, thankfully brief visit to New York which really only serves as a way to juxtapose America with South Korea)
If you, like me, don’t know a whole hell of a lot about South Korea, this book might feel like an alternative reality or speculative fiction book. There are movies, famous people, historical events, and cultural norms that are so outside of what I am used to as to seem part of a totally different world.
But this is not speculative fiction… and that makes this book darker and far more profound and sad than it would otherwise have been.
Despite being from the POV of four different women, the writing style never changes tone and maintains its chatty contemporary feel. I’m glad that South Korean foods and customs weren’t overly explained or drawn attention to, but I did wonder who the target audience for this book was.
Plot / Characters
There are five main characters (artist, wife, saloon girl, hairdresser, and wannabe) and we shift between the POV of four of them. This is… an odd choice. Why don’t we get all five? Couple that with the fact that the storyline of the wife doesn’t really interweave with the others and could easily be left out and it feels even odder. Maybe the Wife is there to show the other side of the coin… but she is one-dimensional and the others are multi-faceted so it is an unfair balancing act.
Honestly, not much happens to any of the five… I wish Cha had picked two to focus on and gone more in-depth. I feel that would have made the weight and tension of their stories matter instead of only skimming the surface because we have to leave room for the other side plots.
There are a few too many side plots that seem on the verge of creating character depth but we aren’t really given enough time with them for them to actually matter.
Case in point… only one character really has an arc. The other four… just move through life reacting to things.
Yes. I did want to see what was going to happen and I really enjoyed being immersed in a culture I don’t know much about. BUT, I didn’t really like the end… partly because it just ended without a lot of resolution, which some people like in the whole “don’t tie it up, let me imagine what happens next” sort of way. I like a bit of that, but there were some things at the end that confused me and left me unsure about what was going to happen to a few of the characters. I think that is a testament to an interesting book if, when you get within 30 pages of the end, you get that sinking feeling that there is no way to wrap everything up… It either means you care a lot about the characters or that the author is being a brat. I think this book falls into the first category. I didn’t like the end, but I am glad I read it and any quibbles I have is just that I felt that Cha could have given me so much more had she decided to.
This is a debut novel, and I have high hopes for future works by Cha.
Would I recommend it?
Tricky, but ultimately yes. It is just so different and engaging and even though Cha doesn’t go into a lot of depth about her subjects, she does raise interesting subjects that warrant reflection and consideration. This is the sort of book that makes you want to do research and find a nonfiction book about the same subject matter. I, for one, like that sort of mental stimulation.
Why THIS book?
I have no idea. At some point, I requested it from the library and so the library told me to come get it, and I did. Maybe it was meant for someone else. Maybe I accidentally requested this while attempting to request something with a similar title. Maybe the request was made months ago during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (which was in May btw) because I felt like it would be good to expand my reading. I hope that’s the answer. Well Done Past Version of Me!
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?