In Soon Wiley’s debut novel, When We Fell Apart, two twenty-somethings search for belonging in the city of Seoul, and their lives are irrevocably changed in the process. This book weaves through emotional twists and turns, fraught with complicated tensions involving familial duty, societal judgment, and cultural and sexual identity.
Min-jun Ford is a biracial Korean-American from California, who takes on a consultant job at Samsung to try out life as an expat in Seoul. Yu-jin Kim is a studious go-getter who has achieved her dream of attending the prestigious Ewha Women’s University, eager to escape her small hometown and discover herself in the big city. While it’s established that Min and Yu-jin are a couple in the beginning of the book, the specifics of their relationship and how they met are only revealed gradually throughout the rest of the story. Each chapter alternates between these two characters’ points of view, albeit at different points in time, and we find out that Yu-jin has been found dead in her apartment, to Min’s utter shock. As the book progresses, Min’s chapters depict his journey into finding out the truth surrounding the circumstances of Yu-jin’s death, as he fervently believes that his girlfriend would not have killed herself despite the police department’s initial presumption of suicide.
While the plot of When We Fell Apart sounds like that of a thriller, it’s more of a slow-burn. Wiley unravels the tragic fate of Yu-jin in his chapters, revealing the details of her life which ultimately led up to her death. Yu-jin’s story deals heavily with the theme of breaking out of social norms to embrace one’s identity, as she is ensnared by the expectations of her family and Korean society. From her youth, she has been trained to excel in academics and she goes on to study Political Science and International Relations per her father’s request. With her father as the Minister of National Defense, Yu-jin is starkly aware of the family name she carries and how any “wrong” move could bring shame. This burden becomes too much to bear for Yu-jin as she grows closer to her female roommate, So-ra, who she begins developing feelings for. Overwhelmed by her love for her best friend yet knowing she cannot face the stigma of being queer in Korea, Yu-jin starts a relationship with Min as her cover without telling him of her true intentions. While Yu-jin does care for Min, she also can’t deny her feelings for So-ra. Her secret relationship, as well as her newfound love for film and the arts, makes her begin questioning what she has known her whole life and the path that her parents have set her on.
As Min continues to investigate Yu-jin’s death as a possible murder, he starts to doubt his relationship the more he uncovers, questioning whether he ever really knew Yu-jin at all. He has been caught up in his own identity struggles, never feeling like he fit into either the American or Korean community. Wiley doesn’t explore Min’s background as deeply as he does Yu-jin’s, but he draws a parallel between these two young adults, complex and yearning for belonging in their own way. The two are bonded not necessarily by romantic feelings but by a shared understanding of what it means to be an outsider. Even though Yu-jin doesn’t love Min in the way that she does So-ra, she explains her attraction to him, “Min wasn’t one thing, one kind of person. Like me, he was stuck in the in-between. I saw my own doubt in him, and I latched onto it, reveled in it.” The sentiment is reflected in Min’s inner thoughts as well. When he finds out about Yu-jin and So-ra, he realizes what their relationship was really built upon. “What had gone unspoken between them, what they’d left unsaid, had allowed them to flourish, even thrive together. They’d found comfort and security in the undefined, never forced to take the leap, demand something, not just from themselves but from each other. In this harsh new light, Min saw his own complicity in Yu-jin’s deceits. He’d welcomed their relationship’s superficiality, found comfort in the shallow pool of their shared existence, where nothing bottomless and strange could swallow them up.”
Each of the characters in Wiley’s book are flawed in their own way and good intentions evolve into tragic errors, making this read emotionally tough to swallow at times but beautiful nonetheless in its depiction of the pain that breaks people down and shatters relationships. Take So-ra, who wants to free Yu-jin of the strain of their secret so badly that she manifests Yu-jin’s worst fear by outting her to her father. Or Min and Misaki, the girls’ third roommate, who finds themselves bonding in the aftermath of Yu-jin’s death and end up making the questionable decision of hooking up with each other. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, Yu-jin’s parents, while desiring the best for their daughter, are so intent on upholding their reputation, that they become incredibly controlling and reproachful, pushing her to a state of hopelessness. Yu-jin herself falters under the burden of wanting to appease everyone around her while trying to stay true to herself. Ultimately, she realizes the impossibility of living in both worlds and decides that she’d rather live in neither.