In her early twenties, Soo-Ja makes a decision that many young women make; she decides which man she will marry. Bound by her family’s traditional values in Korea after the war, she finds herself with no choice but marriage. Her family will not countenance her becoming a diplomat, so when a young man who appears wealthy and influential makes her promises, she chooses him, even though she is in love with another. Once she realizes her mistake, it is too late, and Soo-Ja must come to terms with her life and make the best of what she has left.
This novel made a big impact on me when I read it. Soo-Ja’s despair at her choice, the lies that pile up around her, and her lost ambition all made me feel for her even as I recognized (as many readers will I think) that she makes the wrong choice before she knows why it’s wrong. She loves Yul, a young doctor, but by the time she knows she is wrong, she’s already sinned with Min, and her marriage to him goes forward. It’s only years later when Soo-Ja is run down from paying the bills, caring for her daughter, and pandering to guests that she meets Yul again and longs for him.
But if Soo-Ja were to simply feel sorry for herself, this wouldn’t be the book it is. Instead, she makes the best of everything. She handles the fact that her new family is poor, that her husband won’t work, and that her dreams are gone as best she can and soldiers on. She works to give her daughter a better life, even as she knows that her efforts mean that the young girl favors Min, who spoils her rotten. She takes everything and simply becomes a better person, rather than turning to the bitterness that would have been much easier in that situation. After all, her dreams have been lost to her, and she will probably never get them back.
Park’s writing also does the book a lot of credit. It’s well-done and moves smoothly, and it’s so easy to understand the complexities of the characters while still enjoying the setting, which was new to me. His deft characterizations had me a big fan of Soo-Ja and Yul before I would have thought; after they met again I was firmly behind them getting together again, even as I wondered how it would ever happen with both characters married.
This Burns My Heart is a beautiful love story tinged with sadness and hope, peopled with fantastic characters and underpinned by pitch-perfect writing. Highly recommended.
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