Book Review

Everything Belongs To Us – Yoojin Grace Wuertz

etb2Recently, probably after the success of Gone Girl, stories about the end of marriages became popular. Each has its own twist, but they all explore ways marriages fall apart, especially how they got to that point.

What I rarely see is the end of a friendship. Against the backdrop of 1978 Seoul, we meet three college students Jishun, Namin, and Sunam. Jishun and Namin, from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds, have been friends for ten years.

Namin, along with Sunam, are trying to get into the prestigious Circle group at their college. Namin has worked years so she can get her family out of poverty.

Jisun, on the other hand, is doing everything to be free from her father’s money and expectations. Focusing on activism and protesting the authoritarian regime of President Park Chung-hee, Jisun wants to help those who have been oppressed by Chung-hee’s economic policies.

Namin and Jisun end up at an impasse as Namin wants to join the Circle, which embodies everything Jisun hates about the wealthy.

Hands down, the best part of Everything Belongs to Us is Jisun and Namin and their odd relationship. Both are very complex and nuanced characters, where I went back and forth between how I felt about them. I understood their motivations and what they wanted from life, but the execution and means to get there… did not bring out their best.

I think what’s interesting about Jisun and Namin’s relationship is that, when you look at the beginning, I’m not surprised that their ‘friendship’ is hanging by a thread. From the start it was riddled by misunderstandings.

Jisun, disgusted by materialism, gravitates towards Namin, thinking she feels the same way, since Namin isolates herself from the other students. But for Namin, this is because she senses the gap between her and her richer classmates, and would actually love to have new apparel.

While Jisun tries to untangle herself from her father’s fortune, all Namin sees is a spoiled girl who is unimpressed by everything, which just hardens her towards Jisun.

“[Namin] wanted only to know what it was like to destroy something simply because she wanted to. The way Jisun did all the time, without considering cost or consequences.” (pg.61)

Yeesh. Even frenemies are normally kinder to each other. Later in the book, the reader finds out what bound these two together for so long, and the friendship feels more like an obligation, especially for one side.

I think the line that sums up their friendship, and breaks my heart at the same time, is this:

“Together, Jisun and Namin practiced the art of being unfazed.” (pg.58)

Jisun and Namin’s struggles also reflect the political climate and stark realities of 1970’s Seoul. Wuertz does a fantastic job weaving both the personal stories and the historical landscape together.

Sadly, somewhere in the middle of Everything Belongs to Us, the stream runs out. There’s a few items that contribute to the second half not living up to the first, but the main culprit is Sunam.

At first, I had no issues with Sunam’s point of view being a part of the narration, because I thought he was meant to be our inside eyes into the Circle. One of the reasons the first section was strong was the powerplay between Sunam and his Circle mentor, Juno, as they watch a factory protest.

And then everything was dropped with the Circle, Juno, and Jisun’s brother Min, the leader of the Circle.

With dropping a majority of Sunam’s plotline, it was like cutting his tether, and the rest of his story is just relationship shenanigans with Namin and Jisun, which was tedious. The only upside was it gave Namin a softer layer that she needed, at first.

The first half of the novel just had so much meat to sink your teeth into that I sadly was disappointed by the back half. I don’t think it was terrible, not at all, but so many plot points were dropped and valuable time I could have spent with Jisun and Namin was given to Sunam. Also the romantic plotline… ugh.

I really wanted to shout Everything Belongs to Us’s praises from the roof tops, but sadly the unraveling of the second half is keeping me from it. If you’re interested, I would suggest checking out Wuertz’s debut from the library.

Even though I was disappointed with the ending, I have to say that because of the strong positives in the rest of the novel I am still looking forward to Wuertz’s future work.

Score: 7/10

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