I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz
Published by Random House Publishing Group on February 28th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Asian American, Historical
Format: Print ARC
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This book wasn’t what I expected at all! I really enjoyed the first third, but I was disinterested in the college drama and romantic escapades after that point. It became a story that I wouldn’t be interested in, regardless of the setting. If you’re looking for a story about college students navigating relationships during a tumultuous time in history or if you like Sunam’s chapters, you’ll probably enjoy this one more than I did. Even though the story was just okay for me, I did appreciate the thought-provoking commentary on the corruptive power of money and the barriers between economic classes.
Seoul, South Korea, 1978: three coming-of-age tales that mirror the growing pains of a nation. Three college students from different economic classes are each trying to forge their own path. While Jisun wants to distance herself from her family’s wealth, both Namin and Sunam want to move up on the economic ladder. When middle-class Sunam has to make a choice between the life he has chosen and the life that is expected of him, he runs the risk of betraying everyone.
The “for readers of Anthony Marra and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie” blurb piqued my interest, but my love of those two authors didn’t transfer to this novel. I think it depends on what you think of when you hear those names. It fits if they make you think of stories about regular people living ordinary lives while their country is in turmoil. However, Marra has a distinct style. Invoking his name makes me expect absurdity and dark humor. Everything Belongs to Us has a serious tone. I’ve only read Half of a Yellow Sun from Adichie, but those characters were more immersed in the historical drama. However, HoaYS did face some criticisms of being soapy.
WHAT I LIKED
• Jisun, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy businessman with political influence. She feels burdened by her family’s wealth. She has an antagonistic relationship with her father and is always challenging him, but he still has a hold on her. Jisun is determined to distance herself from him by joining the resistance against President Park Chung-Hee’s authoritarian rule. Her upper-class status makes it difficult to prove herself with the activist groups.
• Namin – Each member of the Kang family has a job and Namin’s job is to lift her family out of poverty. She spends all of her time studying, in hopes of becoming a doctor. Her sister Kyungmin works long hours at a shoe factory to help pay for Namin’s college tuition, but she’s getting tired of living for someone else. Namin is also grappling with a family secret that her parents are determined to keep buried (loved the relationship that developed from this storyline). Resentments are threatening to pull the family even farther apart than they already are.
Shame was not just about secrets or covering up. Or about failure and not having the things other people casually had. Shame was being afraid that she was from crippled, graceless stock, unworthy of the good things other people had. That the mistakes that would chart her life forever had already been made.
• The unequal friendship between Namin and Jisun – Namin and Jisun have been best friends since middle school, but they’re growing apart. Namin lives in a home without indoor plumbing, while Jisun lives in gated mansion. Namin’s family’s livelihood depends on her success, while Jisun has had everything handed to her. Jisun is completely blind to her privilege. She admonishes Namin for working so hard to get ahead, worried that Namin will become another “stupid bourgeois sheep.” She thinks Namin should be grateful to her for becoming an activist and fighting on her behalf. Namin is frustrated with Jisun’s self-righteousness and condescension, but she feels forever indebted to her for a past kindness.
• History – It showed the everyday side of oppression and class struggle that I haven’t read a lot about because many stories focus on violence and war. It addresses the labor protests, the United States military presence, the activist groups, and the activism of US Christian missionaries. I was especially interested in Jisun’s search for an activist group she identified with. Each group had its own personality: the activists who become the people they detest, the ones that demanded ideological purity, the overly-practical, etc.
WHAT DIDN’T APPEAL TO ME:
• The structure – I prefer straightforward narratives. When a story meanders, it makes it hard for me to zero in on the message. I was really interested in Namin’s family story in Part II, so I was disappointed when it didn’t return to Namin’s point-of-view until the end (Part VII).
• Sunam – Sunam enters the two women’s lives after Namin applies to join the Circle, a club that will allow her to join the ranks of the elite. The story becomes very Sunam-focused in the middle. He’s described as “charming” and “ambitious,” but I thought he was bland, weak-willed, and entitled. Jisun and Namin even seemed flattened in his presence and their interactions with each other were clumsy and awkward. Love triangles annoy me most of the time, but it’s even worse when I don’t understand the appeal of the shared party. I was most interested in Sunam’s growing resentment of Namin’s ambition and success. On the bright side, Namin’s reaction after meeting Sunam’s family melted my heart!
“You don’t have to be a shark, you just have to be one little step ahead. And if everyone else is thinking today, all you have to do is think tomorrow.”
• The supporting characters – Juno, Peter, & Kyungmin have interesting parts to play, but they barely registered with me. Manipulative Juno is Sunam’s mentor. He’s one of the “four intertwining lives” mentioned in the description, but it didn’t feel like he was on the same level as the other three. Peter is a Christian missionary who Jisun met through her activism. Namin’s sister Kyungmin was the most fascinating and I’d love to read an entire book just about her!
Jisun learned instead that money was the least reliable measure, sliding from great value to worthlessness depending on the spender. With the same amount of money, you could feed a family for a month or a single person one extravagant meal. You could pay a man’s wages or unlock two thousand pages of vocabulary, an entire universe of words. You could clothe a soccer team. You could save someone’s life.
What I got from the story is somewhat influenced by the current uncertainty & rhetoric in the United States. The scariest thing about this story was how anything can be rationalized. When I read about the shuttering of media outlets and prohibition of anti-government activity, I think “Dictator! Bad!” But Jinsun’s father is giddy over President Park Chung-Hee’s reign. He describes President Park as a man who “gave this country back to the people.” He goes on to say that “no one loves this country more than our president does. He understands the sacrifices we need and works harder than anyone, sacrifices more than anyone. … We must pursue development first and foremost. Development first. Then democracy.” Sunam also comments on how South Korea recovered from the war more quickly because of Park Chung-Hee’s policies.
Are speedy economic rewards ever worth sacrificing your freedoms or trampling over others? What is the true cost of accepting that money? Do you have to compromise your ideals to be successful? Despite disapproving of Park Chung-Hee’s methods, many South Koreans—even a segment of the younger generation—have a positive view of him as an individual, in large part because of the economic prosperity under his reign. (See: The Mixed Legacy of a South Korean Dictator & Why Late South Korean Dictator Park Chung-hee Is The Most Popular President Ever) His daughter was even elected president of South Korea in 2013, although she is currently undergoing impeachment proceedings. It may seem incomprehensible to an outsider, but I think the author does a good job of showing why the trade-offs might not seem so bad depending on your situation.
Now he’d know what it meant to be trapped between his conscience and his pride. It was never as black and white as he thought, the decisions of love and duty.
The story was a little too heavy on the romantic drama of college kids for my tastes, though I did find value in reading it. It takes place during a specific time in South Korea’s history, but the issues it addresses are relevant to everyone. For a more positive perspective of this book, check out the starred review at Kirkus. Warning: It mentions plot points that I haven’t mentioned here, many that don’t occur until after the 80% mark. I anticipate the book all over again after I read their review, so I think part of my problem was that the conflicts I was most interested in didn’t occur until very late in the story.
If you are interested in South Korea’s political situation in the late 1970’s, you might be interested in Human Acts by Han Kang. It’s a darker read about people who were caught up in the middle of a government crackdown. Those who enjoy Everything Belong to Us might be especially interested in “The Factory Girl” chapter.
To read later: The Cultural Politics of Remembering Park Chung Hee