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Everything Belongs to Us: A Novel by Yoojin…

Everything Belongs to Us: A Novel

by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

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The setting and characters are stellar, the writing and storyline not so much. And I really wish Wuertz had not included the epilogue, which I think weakens the book. Still, recommended if you are as obsessed with Korea as I am. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Originally posted on Tales to Tide You Over

I’ve reviewed books that have uncommon narrative styles before, but this is the first time I found myself lost in cultural differences, not just between my culture and theirs but within their culture and the different social strata. No, this is not a criticism. It was fascinating to catch myself having expectations because of the seemingly traditional narrative approach only to have them turned upside down.

Basically, Everything Belongs to Us is a small story, or rather a collection of small stories, that became a deep dive into the culture of South Korea starting around 1978, long enough for a new generation to grow up after the Korean War. This is critical because of the consequences and impact the war left behind in both the physical world and the social structures while the main characters have neither experienced the time before nor the war itself.

The economic disparity, the focus on education and children as the guardians of the future, and the political rhetoric is presented in a matter-of-fact manner that begs you to reflect on what you’re seeing. This is not a simple story despite being shown through often uncritical eyes because it reveals the tradeoffs and consequences both within families and the larger picture. It shows the path to radicalization, but also the conflict and social strata within the radical movements and society as a whole.

It’s not a happy story, though it has its moments, and the cultural differences are never clearer than when a ghost appears but does not transform the book into a paranormal fantasy. It’s another fact of life in their culture. No one questions this as out of the ordinary.

The novel offers a fascinating look at the various reactions to wealth, poverty, honor, and survival through the eyes of young people struggling for control over their own existence beyond the demands of tradition and parents. At the same time, the main characters are trying to meet those expectations, creating the paradoxical conflict in which, to some degree, they are both the rescuer and the jailer of their futures. This is true for everyone except Jisun who is a perpetual rebel and experimenter. Even this is a commentary on social status and wealth as her very willingness sets her apart from those she most wants to connect with. She is unable to see how her giving up advantages does not make her the same as those who never had them in the first place.

While not a single character made it through the book without doing something or making a choice that repelled me, none of the main figures lost my interest, not even Sunam who tried hard to do so from the very start. There’s a large cast with many main characters and time jumps into the past that are subtle and easy to miss, but though I was disoriented at times and had trouble figuring out the who and when for a little bit, I was never lost.

The novel offers a glimpse into their world followed up with a summary and where these people are in modern times, having survived complicated childhoods. It shows the culture with both strengths and shadows, the impact of interaction with foreigners near and far, and the unwieldy balance between respect for a benefactor and spite because the aid has been necessary. It also shows the changes in the meaning of patriotism and honor between generations. While focusing on these young characters, it manages to paint a picture that spans much farther than I had imagined, from bridges mined with explosives in case North Korea invades to families putting all their hopes and dreams into the one child able to compete academically, which has far reaching consequences because they never look to see what their focus has created.

It’s not an easy read, though in some ways it’s all too easy, but I think the book does a good job of bringing another reality into my view, many layered, and both familiar and alien all at once. It was worth the time spent within its pages.

P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review. ( )
  MarFisk | Jun 13, 2017 |
The three young people in this book come of age in 1970's Korea. Each comes from families that represent a different level of the economic ladder. They are also quite different in personalities and connect to each other through mutual need and sometimes questionable loyalties. Although I know little about Korean life and politics, I'm pretty sure that the author does. She writes convincingly about the challenges of growing up in post-war Korea and creates real characters with flaws and weaknesses that balance their strengths.
Life's challenges seem to be a focal point in this book. Each of the main characters is successful in the end, but they pay a price. While the setting is Korea, the struggles and difficulties could occur to young people anywhere. The hopes and dreams of youth can make it seem that everything belongs to them.
Growing up has a way of changing that and turning those dreams inside out. Those who adapt are better suited to future happiness, but everyone has to deal with it in their own way. These characters don't always behave or respond in the way that I as a reader would expect, but I could related to their inadequacies and disappointments.
I enjoyed "Everything Belongs to Us" and recommend it to readers who enjoy a book that portrays real life and challenges them to see things from different angles. I learned a bit about Korea and it's history, yet also enjoyed a story that could have taken place in any setting. The ending isn't neat and tidy, but then again, neither is life. Ultimately everything doesn't really belong to us, but we survive in spite of it.
I thank NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review this title. ( )
  c.archer | Apr 29, 2017 |
This book was set in Seoul during the 1970's.The story centers around two young women, Jisun and Namin from different socioeconomic backgrounds but each trying to find their own way in these tumultuous times. Jisun grew up in the upper class and is trying to break away from her family and Namin grew up with parents who own a food cart and she is trying to improve her family's life who are struggling to survive. I enjoy reading books that help me learn about different cultures and different time periods of these countries. This book did help me to understand the struggles of Seoul in the late 1970'S but I somehow found the story lacking in substance. I did enjoy the last half of the book but I found myself not as engaged with the characters and their stories as I had eished. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  teeth | Apr 22, 2017 |
I received a free advance e-copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley and have chosen of my own free will to post a review. I couldn’t get into this novel. I found the reading very tedious. The characters are shallow. The story was hard to follow because it jumped around so much. I thought it was never going to end. Parts of the story were very sad and tragic. We see the rich and the very poor and downtrodden. We see some very manipulative and controlling characters, a great deal of graft and a political undercurrent. I did not enjoy reading this book. ( )
  iadam | Mar 11, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812998545, Hardcover)

Two young women of vastly different means each struggle to find her 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.
Advance praise for Everything Belongs to Us
“If South Korea transformed in a generation, this is the generation that transformed it: rich and poor, reckless and disciplined, loyal and faithless. Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s fierce and unforgettable characters embody every contradiction as they do everything they can to ensure their own, and their nation’s, survival. In Everything Belongs to Us, Wuertz has given us a Middlemarch for modern South Korea. She’s woven the whole social tapestry, and made us care about every last thread.”—Susan Choi, author of My Education
“I found myself engrossed in the difficult choices faced by Wuertz’s nuanced, engaging characters as they navigate college politics and romance in 1970s Seoul. I’m thrilled to have experienced their inner lives in these pages—to have celebrated their victories and commiserated in the pain of their mistakes—and would happily have stuck with them for hundreds more.”—Emily Barton, author of The Book of Esther
“What a story! Everything belongs to this terrific debut: love, family, friendship, and politics. I especially loved the two strong-willed and passionate heroines. Their ideals, choices, and struggles make this an utterly rapturous literary page-turner.”—Samuel Park, author of This Burns My Heart
“Historic in scope yet eerily contemporary, Everything Belongs to Us is a stirring debut that immerses readers in a society where some quietly hope for change and others must demand it.  In Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s capable hands, characters come alive with desire for a different kind of life, and heartbreak is the price of longing.”—Jung Yun, author of Shelter

(retrieved from Amazon Tue, 13 Dec 2016 16:34:49 -0500)

"This debut novel takes place at the elite Seoul National University in 1970s South Korea during the final years of a repressive regime. The novel follows the fates of two women--Jisun, the daughter of a powerful tycoon, who eschews her privilege to become an underground labor activist in Seoul; and Namin, her best friend from childhood, a brilliant, tireless girl who has grown up with nothing, and whose singular goal is to launch herself and her family out of poverty. Drawn to both of these women is Sunam, a seeming social-climber who is at heart a lost boy struggling to find his place in a cutthroat world. And at the edges of their friendship is Junho, whose ambitions have taken him to new heights in the university's most prestigious social club, called "the circle," and yet who guards a dangerous secret that is tied to his status. Wuertz explores the relationships that bind these students to each other, as well as the private anxieties and desires that drive them to succeed" --… (more)

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