A Review of Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s Everything Belongs to Us (Random House, 2017).
By Stephen Hong Sohn
I had a couple of false starts with Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s debut novel Everything Belongs to Us (Random House, 2017). I would get in about forty pages, then stop, then leave it down for about a month, then pick it up again, re-start, then stall at page fifty. Rinse. Repeat. This re-starting phenomenon has been happening more often for whatever reason. I blame social media and the internet, because the novel itself, once I actually buckled down and settled in, was quite a scrumptious debut, filled with complex characters and associated trajectories.
Let’s let B&N do some work for us: “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.”
This description does set up the characters and the basic tension, in which Namin and Jisun exists as opposite sides of the same coin. It seems that Jisun idealizes the impoverished background that Namin comes from, the so-called “real world” authenticity that Namin boasts by virtue of coming from poverty. Namin, on the other hand, does not necessarily envy Jisun, but certainly wants to get out of that poverty, while bringing up her family members in the process. That they are such close friends is the biggest fiction that this novel deals with, as we begin to see how fraught that connection actually is. Sunam’s arrival is, of course, the straw that breaks the friendship’s back. As a relatively careless student with an upper middle class background, he doesn’t have a strong sense of the tensions swirling around him, the maelstrom to which he’s been drawn into, and how problematic his idealization of Namin really is.
In any case, one of the difficult aspects of the novel is the constant shifts in temporality. Wuertz has a master game plan in mind that makes everything fit together, but some readers may find themselves occasionally unmoored from the various shifts and analespses that she employs. The final arc will also split readers. A hasty epilogue traces about three decades worth of time, which can seem like a hasty send-off given the painstaking detail with which Wuertz carves out of a period of about ten or so years. I was all in until that moment, but the epilogue itself is a minor quibble given the textured portrait that Wuertz gives us, especially of a time period in Seoul that has not been given that much attention from Korean American (or Asian American) writers. While the novel is primarily set in Seoul, there are some obvious transnational dimensions, as some characters occasionally receive schooling in the United States or Europe.
In terms of other books I have read by KA writers, I think temporally it’s closest to the work of Samuel Park in This Burns My Heart, but the reading experience is quite different. What this novel leads us to again and again is a sense that a framework is needed that would move Korean society beyond its strongly Confucian ideologies and social relationships, so that alternative kinships and extra-familial relationships can find larger recognition. Also, the novel is a particularly searing account of class immobility in Korea and gives us a sense of the incredibly difficult odds one must combat to move upward in any sense of the word.
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Review Author: Stephen Hong Soh
Review Editor: Gnei Soraya Zarook
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