Yoojin Grace Wuertz
In Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s debut novel Everything Belongs to Us, the setting is Seoul in 1978. At South Korea’s top university, the nation’s best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success could lead to a life of rarefied privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind. For childhood friends Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn’t be more different. Jisun, the daughter of a powerful business mogul, grew up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin’s parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew; her sister works in a shoe factory. Now Jisun wants as little to do with her father’s world as possible, abandoning her schoolwork in favor of the underground activist movement, while Namin studies tirelessly in the service of one goal: to launch herself and her family out of poverty. But everything changes when Jisun and Namin meet an ambitious, charming student named Sunam, whose need to please his family has led him to a prestigious club: the Circle. Under the influence of his mentor, Juno, a manipulative social climber, Sunam becomes entangled with both women, as they all make choices that will change their lives forever. “Engrossing,” our reviewer writes in a starred review. “Wuertz is an important new voice in American fiction.”


KIRKUS REVIEW

An ambitious debut about power and family in South Korea with rich character portraits and a strong political heartbeat.

In her first novel, Wuertz traces the ambitions of four loosely connected students attending Seoul National University in 1978. There’s Jisun, a revolutionary at heart fighting for autonomy from her wealthy and influential father; Namin, a poor scholarship student struggling to bury her family’s past and lift them out of poverty; Sunam, a striver caught between the different futures these young women offer him; and Juno, an ingratiating social climber only interested in his own advancement. It’s no accident that the book opens—and closes—amid the clamor of protest, from striking textile workers roughed into police vans to a smoke bomb planted during a college graduation ceremony. Wuertz investigates a national crisis surrounding worker exploitation and upward mobility, the complicity of the rich, and the stifling indecision of the middle class. With deep sympathy and psychological insight, she demonstrates how a corrupt political regime bankrupts—literally and figuratively—the choices of her characters, pushing them to moral extremes. Namin is forced to choose between caretaking for her beloved disabled brother and raising her sister’s illegitimate son, while Sunam struggles with a bribe of unimaginable magnitude. Even spirited Jisun must negotiate for her freedom. To outsmart her controlling father, she chooses to give away her fortune to the legal funds of protesters. At the bank, she’s left with “an eerie feeling like stealing from a ghost, a fictional character with her name and identification number.” Jisun isn’t the only ghost walking in the pages of this book, which collects and mourns the forgotten, downtrodden souls these four must rescue or leap over in their race to the top. Wuertz’s book blooms in unexpected ways, eschewing a straightforward plot for more meandering paths. While the framework of the novel isn’t always tidy, the book is no less a significant representation of the politics of postwar hope and despair.

Engrossing. Wuertz is an important new voice in American fiction.


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