by Jen Frederick
Publication: May 25, 2021
Series: Seoul Series #1
Growing up and wishing she looked like those around her, Korean adoptee Hara Wilson is very much removed from her Korean culture despite her mother Ellen often trying to engage her with it when she was younger. After the death of her adoptive father, she surprises even herself when she decides she wants to visit Korea. On the search for her biological parents, Hara also finds an unexpected romance along with messier than expected familial ties.
I like Frederick’s novels for tugging at my emotions and for the most part, the book does this. The beginning especially struck a chord with me as Hara related her relationship with her adoptive father and lacking a sense of belonging in a place she says likely “doubled the Asian population when her mom adopted her.” I cannot identify with Hara’s experience as an adoptee, I can only try to understand her story and this ended up often being through the lenses of being perceived as “other” while growing up Asian in a predominantly white community. In some ways, I could empathize with wishing to look more like those around her and pushing aside her culture. This aspect of the book was particularly well done, making the impetus for Hara’s trip to Korea a believable one when her search for identity is a greater pull than she realizes.
Like in her other novels, Frederick gives us a smart and strong protagonist in Hara Wilson. Her introspection throughout the novel displays growth, from being someone who particularly keeps to herself to becoming more vocal about who she is and what she wants. The question of her “Koreanness” was particularly thought provoking, although it left me unsettled at the amount of times her identity was questioned. It was interesting to see the answer evolve and the answer Hara chooses to accept as her own.
The heart and soul (heh…) of the book is Hara’s search for her identity. I wish the book had kept to this theme. Surprisingly, I could have done without the romance subplot–this is coming from someone who loves romance in just about everything. I could have also done without the additional drama that overpowers Hara’s overall journey toward the end of the novel. When the book took a turn for the dramatic and started to feel more like a Korean drama, my interest in it wavered and I enjoyed it less–this is also coming from someone who adores her Korean dramas.
The author’s acknowledgment was especially poignant to me, explaining that this story is just one narrative and not necessarily representative of every adoptee’s story. I hope that when reading this, and other books as well, readers take this into consideration. While there may be overlapping themes, remember that we each also have our own narratives.
Heart & Seoul is a good book, but those expecting a full blown romance might be disappointed as well as those who are expecting more soul searching. On the other hand, readers who like Korean dramas in their books may enjoy Heart & Seoul.
**I was excited to see the mention of Korean drama Signal (2016). It’s one of my favorite Korean dramas. It’s a mash of the movie Frequency and the television series Cold Case. It’s on Netflix but you can also find recaps at Dramabeans. It’s such a good drama and I needed to mention it.**