Like A 90's Korean Drama: A Review of Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me
Kim’s historical novel features Haemi and her struggles in balancing herself, romance, family, and the changes in post-war Korea.
Crystal Hana Kim’s novel, If You Leave Me, reminded me of Korean dramas from the late 1990s and the early 2000s. This period was saturated with love stories that crossed levels of the social caste, the fantasies of Cinderella and Aladdin. Screenwriters pamper the audience with dramatic twists in the romantic relationship - how they met, how they suffer - without forcing the protagonists to become a better version of themselves. So, just like swallowing a lump of wasabi, you tear up. But you rarely connect.
It was 1951, and the North Koreans had crossed the 38th parallel. Haemi, with her mother and brother, fled south towards Busan, where she combatted starvation by sucking on tree roots. Her brother fell sick from tuberculosis. But simply by escaping, Haemi and her family were amongst those who could count themselves as lucky.
In Busan, Haemi ran into her childhood sweetheart, Kyunghwan, who lived a similarly impoverished life. Kyunghwan, though, received some support from his cousin, Jisoo, who was originally from a wealthy family in Seoul. And when Jisoo ran into Haemi, the readers were invited into a messy, two-decade-long love triangle.
This is Crystal Hana Kim’s first book and she managed to fluently tell the story. Part I, in particular, was a fast-paced love story packed with action. Each character faced crucial decisions in handling the relationship, making it a joy to turn the pages and reveal the next move. Just like a Korean drama, the author tactfully embedded major questions at the end of each chapter which certainly helped in keeping the readers hooked.
Yet, from Part II onwards, If You Leave Me turned into a swamp that was difficult to trot through. The characters’ motivations grew muddier. All three protagonists grew less likeable as their personality flaws became very apparent - not unlike dirty underwear hung out in the public to dry. The author allowed them to drown in their limitations, rather than helping them to strive for progress. Could this be the author’s attempt to highlight how adults are less likeable and lack real purpose?
Part III and IV, on the other hand, read like you are going on a long road trip with a single cassette tape - the same (or very similar) melody replayed continuously, even as the characters aged and the world changed. The reader would have appreciated more signposts to hint at the direction that the story would take on.
Kim, to her credit, attempted to spice things up with the viewpoints of two side characters (Haemi’s brother and daughter). Both played key roles in how the story unfolded, yet these additional perspectives were unimportant, and they merely distracted the reader from being fully immersed in the scent of love and sweat coming from Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo.
Throughout the book, the author referred to the many societal changes that took place in post-war Korea. Some of them were cute touches. Say, Kyunghwan’s experience in visiting a department store as a member of the poor working class. But many more simply registered as a remark and there were few clear consequences. For example, the protagonists repeatedly commented on the changing societal view towards interracial marriages; yet, this view never transformed into a key part of the plot.
The characters also engaged in political debates, sometimes without the appropriate context or intention. Political terms, such as the Second Republic, lacked explanations in the book, while changes in the political backdrop - say, the military coup and dictatorship - clearly were affecting the lives of every Korean, but received few references.
A more experienced author, I suspect, would tell If You Leave Me with more focus: Stick to key viewpoints of the three main characters, give the characters a chance to better themselves, and zoom in on elements of societal changes that really affected the main characters.
Nevertheless, the author completed and published her first book, which is a major accomplishment. She can certainly take further inspiration from Korean dramas: they no longer follow the same predictable formula today. The author, similarly, owns all the tools to tell a more refreshing story next time.