28 February 2017

Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Summary from Goodreads:
Two young women of vastly different means struggle to find their own way during the darkest hours of South Korea's economic miracle, in a striking debut novel for readers of Anthony Marra and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie.

Seoul, 1978. At South Korea's top university, the nation s best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success could lead to a life of rarefied privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind.

For childhood friends Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn't be more different. Jisun, the daughter of a powerful business mogul, grew up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin's parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew. Her sister works in a shoe factory. Now Jisun wants as little to do with her father's world as possible, abandoning her schoolwork in favor of the underground activist movement, while Namin studies tirelessly in the service of one goal: to launch herself and her family out of poverty.

But everything changes when Jisun and Namin meet an ambitious, charming student named Sunam, whose need to please his family has led him to a prestigious club: the Circle. Under the influence of his mentor, Juno, a manipulative social climber, Sunam becomes entangled with both women, as they all make choices that will change their lives forever.

In this sweeping yet intimate debut, Yoojin Grace Wuertz details four intertwining lives that are rife with turmoil and desire, private anxieties and public betrayals, dashed hopes and broken dreams while a nation moves toward prosperity at any cost.

Conveniently enough, my next historical novel was also centered around Korea.  Yoojin Grace Wuertz set her debut novel Everything Belongs to Us during the turbulent 1970s student uprisings in Seoul.  Two women, Namin and Jisun, have been friends since elementary school.  Jisun's father is rich and politically well-connected, Namin's family scrape by through relentless toil at their food cart.  Neither family is what you would call close or warm.  Namin knows that her only way out of poverty, and that of her disabled younger brother, is through her brains - she will make it through university and medical school to become a respected doctor.  Jisun is no less intelligent but possesses a reckless spirit that places her squarely at odds with her father.

Seoul National University - the country's most elite college with its grueling entrance exams - offers the women their first taste of freedom after the rigor of high school.  Namin begins to social-climb. SNU's The Circle, a fraternity-like social club, offers her connections with peers who will go on to direct South Korea's future.  Jisun, though, spurns the club - her brother being one of the leaders - and instead focuses on the student movement agitating among the factory workers.  Both women become involved with Sunam, another aspiring applicant to The Circle whose earnest, bumbling attempts at social-climbing perpetually leave him on the periphery.

Everything Belongs to Us is an excellent debut novel. The settings are so vivid. Jisun's starkly beautiful but chilling home compared to Namin's poor but kept just-serviceable family house compared to the rural family farm where Namin's brother lives with their grandparents.  The factory workers' protest compared to the rigor of academics at SNU.  Namin, Jisun, and Sunam are all very different characters, with differing motivations. They're all also extremely unlikeable at times which makes them particularly fascinating as you simultaneously pity and despise each one in turn. Each carries so much of the story that even at the very end I was never quite sure who the "main" character actually was - Sunam who always seemed to be more of a narrator of others' lives? Maybe.  He is the most relatable character, in my opinion - haven't we all tried to join a group, on our best behavior, only to feel like we haven't been told the password?  The book ends with an Epilogue that I wasn't particularly a fan of, so Epilogue dislikers you are forewarned, but it didn't take away from the body of the book.  A definite recommend for fans of Min Jin Lee (hey, hey, Pachinko) and Kyung-Sook Shin.

Everything Belongs to Us is out today, February 28, wherever books are sold.

Dear FTC: Thanks to Random House for the ARC.

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