This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
Synopsis from publisher:
Chamara is difficult to translate from Korean to English: To stand it, to bear it, to grit your teeth and not cry out? To hold on, to wait until the worst is over? Such is the burden Samuel Park’s audacious, beautiful, and strong heroine, Soo-Ja Choi, faces in This Burns My Heart, an epic love story set in the intriguing landscape of postwar South Korea. On the eve of marriage to her weak, timid fiancé, Soo-Ja falls in love with a young medical student. But out of duty to her family and her culture she turns him away, choosing instead a world that leaves her trapped by suffocating customs.
In a country torn between past and present, Soo-Ja struggles to find happiness in a loveless marriage and to carve out a successful future for her only daughter. Forced by tradition to move in with her in-laws, she must navigate the dangers of a cruel household and pay the price of choosing the wrong husband. Meanwhile, the man she truly loves remains a lurking shadow in her life, reminding her constantly of the love she could have had.
Will Soo-Ja find a way to reunite with her one true love or be forced to live out her days wondering “what if ” and begin to fully understand the meaning of chamara?
I had high expectations for this novel. The description made it sound like a fascinating read, full of historical insight and emotional longing. The praise on the book's jacket - from such authors as Audrey Niffenegger and Sarah Waters - promised a powerful, captivating tale. Unfortunately for me, the story itself did not live up to its promise.
The idea was interesting, and yet as I turned the pages I felt like I'd read this story before. Soo-Ja was, indeed, a complex and intriguing heroine, and yet somehow I felt like I never quite got to know HER - the author told me a lot about how she felt and what she did, but I never truly felt like I understood why she made some of the decisions she made. I think that was the biggest flaw for me - the author told us a lot about the story, but I felt like he didn't SHOW us with his words. Soo-Ja's parents were strict and demanding, but we never really saw how. Soo-Ja worked like a slave for her in-laws, but we never saw what she actually had to do. Soo-Ja fell madly, immediately in love, but we never really knew why.
Despite the flaws in the story, the writing was excellent. The author clearly knows his craft, and his careful choice of words was apparent. I marked several passages in the novel that I thought were especially lovely -
"Soo-Ja's mother watched as the men bowed on the floor, lowering their knees, followed by their hands, and then their heads - all in one continuous, seamless motion. They folded themselves small like human paper dolls, going from adult, to child, to newborn, and then upright again." (p. 22-23)
Unfortunately, the writing couldn't make up for the frustration I felt with the story itself. I think I could SEE the beautiful novel in there, but it just wasn't quite on the page yet, and I think that was my biggest frustration. I know some readers loved the book - check out the review at Devourer of Books for a different opinion - so even though it didn't work for me, it might be the best read of the year for you.
Source: review copy from publisher - thank you!
MPAA rating: PG for some scenes of adult situations and violence
My rating: 6/10