Brimming with humor and life, Love in the Big City makes for an entertaining read. I found its protagonist’s lighthearted narration to be deeply compulsive and I was hooked to his story from the very first pages. Similarly to Frying Plantain and The Nakano Thrift ShopLove in the Big City is divided into self-contained parts/chapters, each one focusing on a specific period of our main character’s life. In most of these Young, our mc, is a writer in his early thirties living in Seoul. The gritty realism of his daily life, as well as his love & sex life, brought to mind authors such as Bryan Washington. While this book does touch upon things like homophobia, abortion, STDs, suicidal ideation, it does so in a very casual way that never struck me as offensive or careless. Young is easily the star of the show as he makes for an incredibly funny and relatable character. From his failed relationships to his day-to-day mishaps. Young makes for a carefree and admirably resilient character whose inner monologue and running commentary never failed to entertain me. Love in the Big City also provides readers with a glimpse into the realities of being queer in contemporary Korean society. Yet, while the stigma, shame, and or lack of visibility Young experiences (or is made to experience) are sobering, his voice remains upbeat and easy to follow. Additionally, the author’s vibrant depiction of Seoul makes for a vivid setting. My favourite section was probably the first one, which focuses on Young’s friendship with Jaehee, who for a time is his roommate. Things get complicated when Jaehee begins to lie about Young’s gender to the boy she’s currently seeing. The sections that centre more on Young’s partners, well, they did seem a bit repetitive. Perhaps because most of the men he dates or frequents share a similar kind of dull and off-putting personality. Still, I appreciated how unsentimental the author when portraying and or discussing love and sex. Although I have read a few books by Korean authors that are set in Korea this is the first time I’ve come across one that is so wonderfully unapologetically queer and sex-positive. More of this, please! Love in the Big City makes for a candid, insightful, and above all witty read exploring the life of a young(ish) gay man in Seoul.
“Is this life? Is this why the relentless passing of time is both regretful and fortunate?”
I feel rather conflicted about I’ll Be Right There. The first two chapters certainly held my attention and some of the discussions that occur later in the narrative were thought-provoking, but, alas, many of the dialogues came across as stilted, there are many instances where the story verges on being straight-up misery-porn, and yet we also get a good ol’ dose of melodrama and some rather sappy moments. After receiving a phone call from her ex-boyfriend our narrator, Jung Yoon, reminiscences about her early twenties. Her time at university in the 1980s was punctuated by anti-government student demonstrations. Yoon is still mourning the death of her mother and feels slightly removed from her everyday life. She becomes close to two other students, Myungsuh and Miru. The three are united by their trauma, grief, and shared sense of not belonging. The story that follows is quite slow going. We get detailed descriptions of some of the lessons they attend or the walks they go on. Now and again we are reminded of the fraught political atmosphere but the major conflicts within the story stem from grief-related trauma. I wasn’t too keen on the way Miru’s backstory is presented. Not that I can’t believe that all these horrible things happened to her but the way her past was revealed to Yoon—and us—seemed to sensationalise it. In general, I can’t say that I cared for how mental health-related issues are dealt with within this novel. A character has an ED and this is portrayed almost in a poetic light. The dialogue occasionally was just jarring. We have a scene in which character A is confessing their feelings to character B. Character B responds by saying ‘do you like more than character C?’. And character A doesn’t answer this but goes on to recount a story about a dead sparrow and then about being peer-pressured into eating a sparrow and all the while saying how they love B as much as the sorrow/tragedy they experienced in those moments. But character B keeps asking the same question (do you like me more than C?) throughout A’s sparrow speech. The professor character remains largely off-page so I did not feel anything really towards him. Interspersed throughout the narrative are diary entries of Myungsuh and I can’t stay that these added anything (to him or the overarching story).
I appreciated some of the discussions on grief and literature but I never felt anything in particular for the characters. The ‘romances’ were very ‘meh’. They sort of happen and I can’t say I found them all that convincing. All in all, I just think this wasn’t the right read for me. The story is boring, the characters dull and defined by their trauma, and the narrative’s tone often shifted to one that was far too sentimental for my taste. But, just because this was not a ‘win’ in my books does not mean that you should not give it a try so I recommend you check out more positive reviews if this is on your radar.
Engaging and insightful If I Had Your Face is a solid debut novel from a promising writer. If I Had Your Face follows four young women trying to navigate everyday life in contemporary Seoul. They live in the same building but to begin with are not exactly friends. We have Ara, a mute hair stylist who is infatuated with a member of a popular Kpop boy band, Kyuri, who has undergone numerous plastic surgeries and works at a ‘room salon’ where she entertains wealthy men, Miho, an artist who studied in NY and whose boyfriend comes from an influential family, and Wonna, who lives with her husband and is pregnant. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been structured differently, so that instead of switching between these characters their stories could have been presented as a series of interlinked novellas. This would have probably prevented their voices from blurring together, which they sometimes did. Miho and Wonna’s chapters were a lot weaker in terms of ‘distinctive’ voice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Cha’s breezy prose. It is very readable and vividly rendered the characters’ circumstances/environments. I liked the balance Cha maintained between drama and realism. Cha’s commentary on South Korean society is both sharp and zingy. Through the Ara, Miho, Wonna, and Kyuri’s stories Cha shows the ways in which their choices, desires, sense of selves, are shaped by gender inequity, class, and oppressive beauty standards. Their parents are either dead or unable to help them financially so they rely on their income…beauty too is a currency and we see the advantages of being seen as beautiful entails. Another aspect that I appreciated about this novel was that its characters are not paragons of virtue. They can be selfish, oblivious, not always willing to consider the weight of their actions or words, judgemental, flippant, and cruel. I did find myself far more interested in Ara and Kyuri than Miho and Wonna. This may be because the latter two had chapters that were heavy on ‘backstories’ (as opposed to focusing on the ‘now’). Miho’s personality seemed that of the artist (always with her head in the clouds, viewing the world through artistic lenses, too occupied by her art to remember to eat or take care of herself) while Wonna’s chapters did not seem to fit with the rest. Her chapters examine her marriage and her anxiety over her pregnancy (understandably since she had several miscarriages), which would have suited another kind of book. The other characters’ chapters did not have such narrow focus. Also, I just found myself growing fonder of Ara and Kyuri. Their storylines were gripping in a way that Miho and Wonna’s weren’t. The stakes were higher in Ara and Kyuri and their eventual friendship was rather sweet. Cha’s If I Had Your Face is certainly a vibrant read. If you want to read more about modern South Korean society or of the trails and errors, ups and downs of life as a millennial you should definitely give If I Had Your Face a try.
ps: I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the blurb for this novel. The blurb for the viking edition not only reveals too much but it is also kind of misleading (Ara’s obsession with a K-pop star “drives her to violent extremes”…? When? If this is referring to that one scene…that had very little to do with Ara’s crush on that K-pop star).