When We Fell Apart book review by Soon Wiley

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Soon to be Wiley’s moving first novel, “When we parted waysbegins shortly after the suicide of Yu-Jin Kim, a promising final-semester student at a prestigious university. Brilliant, talented and loved by her father – the powerful South Korean Minister of National Defense – Yu-Jin seemed like a person who had everything to live for. Her boyfriend, Min, convinced he missed a sign or an opportunity to help, seeks answers about what Yu-Jin was struggling with – and possibly hiding.

The novel’s chapters alternate between Yu-Jin’s perspective in the years before his death and Min’s attempts to understand what happened afterward. As the voices rise, they slowly reveal a powerful story about the pressures faced by young adults living in Korean society. Reminiscent of Cho Nam-Joo’s international bestseller, “Kim Jiyoung, born in 1982,” Wiley’s novel depicts the rigid social and cultural expectations that govern women’s careers, relationships, and bodies. Even for a woman like Yu-Jin, who was born and raised with all the privileges, the future is a path of choices that seem already predetermined.

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With the encouragement of her best friend, Sora, Yu-Jin attempted the seemingly radical act of doing what made her happy in a country where some, including her very controlling and shadowy father, still viewed the pursuit of happiness as a convention. American, “a stupid idea to put into the minds of the weak.” After years of always doing what was expected of her, Yu-Jin was secretly taking a filmmaking class that inspired her, and while dating Min, she also had a passionate relationship with someone whose identity , if discovered, would likely ruin her at once. and the reputation of his family.

While Yu-Jin’s chapters read like a mystery – propelling and forensic in their examination of her secrets and desires – Min’s storyline is more reactive. Other characters, including Yu-Jin’s roommates and a detective assigned to his case, order him to meet them at various clandestine locations in and around Seoul, and he dutifully obeys, collecting more pieces of the puzzle in the process. road. At times, Min seems more driven by self-absorption than her feelings for Yu-Jin. At one point, he thinks back to their happy and easy relationship and thinks, “Maybe there was still something wrong with him, a disability. Otherwise, why would this have happened? Otherwise, why would she leave? It turns out there were many reasons, few of which had anything to do with Min being the only source of relatively simple pleasure in Yu-Jin’s increasingly complicated life.

Wiley is a master of structure and pacing, with a knack for ending chapters at their most gripping moments, giving this quiet, sad novel the page-turning quality of a thriller. Yet what makes “When We Fell Apart” a must-read is its portrayal of the extraordinary pressure young Koreans face to conform and perform. (The suicide was the leading cause of death among young people in South Korea since 2007 due to a number of contributing factors, including financial problems, high unemployment rates, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a hypercompetitive education system.

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In one particularly memorable chapter, Yu-Jin prepares for life after graduation under the watchful eye of her father. This includes a haircut and makeup consultation, a fitting of a bespoke suit, and a professional portrait session during which her cheeks hurt “from holding an expression that my father says must give off ‘serious but not intimidating, hard-working but not difficult.’” She also meets a job interview coach whose rules and advice are “all seemingly meant for submission and decorum.”

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Ultimately, Min, a biracial Korean American struggling with his own issues of identity and acceptance, is the perfect person to seek answers about what happened to this bright young woman who wanted to choose another path, focused on art, love, freedom and individuality. It’s a fitting role given that “everything he’s done, everywhere he’s gone, Min has only wanted one thing: acceptance. It was a desire that Yu-Jin must know well.

Jung Yun, assistant professor of English at George Washington University, is the author of the novels “O Beautiful” and “Shelter”.

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