When We Fell Apart is a novel about belonging and family, as a Korean-American man in Seoul tries to find out the truth about his Korean girlfriend’s suicide. Min grew up in California with an American father and Korean mother, but has moved to Seoul to try and search for something intangible. When he met Yu-jin, a university student with a powerful father, their relationship seemed perfect, but when she suddenly takes her own life, Min ends up on a trail to work out the truth, discovering that he didn’t know Yu-jin as well as he thought.
This is a layered book, set up like a murder mystery, but really about the multitudes within people and how they appear different to different people. Each chapter alternates between Min’s present point of view and Yu-jin’s in the past, showing Yu-jin’s journey from small town to Seoul, and her discovery of more than that path her parents set out for her. Her relationship with her roommate So-ra is particularly important, and seeing glimpses of the ways that Yu-jin puts up different barriers and acts with different people highlights her longing for yet inability to do and be exactly as she wants. Min stays fairly mysterious, even more of an outsider in the city and discovering he wasn’t even really aware of everything going on in his relationship, but also making friends with Yu-jin’s Japanese roommate.
The main characters all show different kinds of outsiders in Seoul, also depicting a lot of the city with an outsider’s perspective as well, and the book explores ideas of how people manage being an outsider and where cultures do or don’t have room for it. The narrative unfolds slowly, less of a fast paced mystery than a slow unfolding of layers. It would have been quite different if it was just from Min’s perspective, more focused on a mystery of power and secrets, but the inclusion of Yu-jin’s point of view as well makes for more of a melancholic tone, seeing a character find joys beyond her family’s plans and expectations, but not know how to include them in her future. The characters’ relationship to time, particularly to thinking about present and future, brings out something interesting, with Seoul seeming to represent a present for both Min and Yu-jin that they don’t quite seem to see beyond.
When We Fell Apart is a slow burn kind of mystery that focuses on character relationships and perspectives, more of a literary look at outsiders in Seoul than the thriller-esque pursuit of the truth suggested in some ways by the blurb. It builds up an intriguing picture of characters who seem to purposefully only see things in certain ways and their ties to each other.
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