Book Review : Shine by Jessica Jung

Book Review : Shine by Jessica JungShine by Jessica Jung
on September 29th 2020
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Crazy Rich Asians meets Gossip Girl by way of Jenny Han in this knock-out debut about a Korean American teen who is thrust into the competitive, technicolor world of K-pop, from Jessica Jung, K-pop legend and former lead singer of one of the most influential K-pop girl groups of all time, Girls Generation.
What would you give for a chance to live your dreams?
For seventeen-year-old Korean American Rachel Kim, the answer is almost everything. Six years ago, she was recruited by DB Entertainment—one of Seoul’s largest K-pop labels, known for churning out some of the world’s most popular stars. The rules are simple: Train 24/7. Be perfect. Don’t date. Easy right?
Not so much. As the dark scandals of an industry bent on controlling and commodifying beautiful girls begin to bubble up, Rachel wonders if she’s strong enough to be a winner, or if she’ll end up crushed… Especially when she begins to develop feelings for K-pop star and DB golden boy Jason Lee. It’s not just that he’s charming, sexy, and ridiculously talented. He’s also the first person who really understands how badly she wants her star to rise.
Get ready as Jessica Jung, K-pop legend and former lead singer of Korea’s most famous girl group, Girls Generation, takes us inside the luxe, hyper-color world of K-pop, where the stakes are high, but for one girl, the cost of success—and love—might be even higher. It’s time for the world to see: this is what it takes to SHINE.

Shine was one of my most anticipated novels of this year. I am a huge fan of Jessica Jung, and have followed her career for years, so I couldn’t wait to read her very first novel, which is inspired from her own life as a K-pop trainee. I was pleasantly surprised by Shine and even read the book in one sitting. What I liked most about this novel was not any tea being spilled about famous K-pop idols under different names, but the glimpse into the cruel K-pop machine. Jessica Jung shines an essential, critical light on the misogynistic, sexist, competitive, abusive, and grueling world of the K-pop industry, and I couldn’t look away.


“If someone had told me when I was eleven years old about everything I’d have to sacrifice to get to this point, everything that would be stolen from me, I would have said they were writing a K-drama. The path to get here has turned out to be harder than anything I could’ve ever imagined, but here I am.”


Shine follows Rachel Kim, a Korean-American who is scouted by DB entertainment. She and her family pack up from New York and move to Seoul, South Korea in order to pursue her dream at the tender age of eleven. Thinking of myself at age eleven, an insecure girl who splattered her binders in Sailor Moon and horses, I can only imagine just how limitless the damage of growing up in the K-pop industry is. Rachel Kim and the trainees are forced with monthly evaluations, where they are forced to perform in front of CEOs, executives, and other trainees. They are hit in the stomach during singing practice to strengthen their diaphragms. They are forced onto the scale constantly. On top of that, trainees get very little sleep, dancing and singing for most hours of the day. Dating is forbidden. If they aren’t perfect, they are verbally abused, or worse, kicked out of the company without another thought, rendering their dreams crushed. And I thought middle school was unbearable. 


“DB talks about us being a family. But they don’t care. They don’t care about me. About you. They don’t care about anyone. All they care about is making us into perfect K-pop machines that will do everything they say and rake in the money for them.”


One could hope that trainees could at least find solace in the bonds of friendship the form with one another, but at least in Rachel Kim’s experience, that is not the case. Rachel is looked down upon for growing up in America, for her mother’s insistence that she not live in the trainee house and that she goes to a real high school, and for practically everything else. Her fellow trainees attempt to sabotage her at every turn, even drugging her and blackmailing her. And things only go further down hill when Rachel captures the attention of Jason Lee, DB’s most successful male idol. Through Rachel’s budding forbidden romance with Jason, author Jessica Jung demonstrates the double standard for male and female idols. When Jason is praised for his performance, Rachel and other female trainees are fat or slut shamed by the general population and blamed for any little thing that goes wrong by the company.


“She told me that being with Jason wouldn’t just be difficult; it would be dangerous. And it is. But it’s also unjust. I gave my life to DB, and in the end this decision—a decision we both made—will destroy me. And only me. In the end I will be the only one who’s forced to walk away from everything I’ve worked for—the fans, the music, the magic. For the first time in a long time, I can feel the threads of my life start to weave together with perfect clarity. And they’re all pulling me toward one obvious conclusion: I might want to be with Jason, but I need to debut. And being with Jason could cost me my career before it even begins.”

The author does a great job of showing this injustice through Jason, who is a typical man, and clueless of the privilege that his gender grants him. Shine realistically and sympathetically portrays what the consequences would mean for Rachel versus Jason. I found this relationship compelling, but also very sad. Perhaps more upsetting, was the way no one in Rachel’s world could be trusted. Her fellow trainees are out for blood, and I have seen a lot of other reviews stating that they couldn’t root for Rachel as she had to resort to threatening to expose another trainee’s relationship to protect herself. I completely disagree with this assessment. Shine makes it clear that Rachel is simply trying to survive, and unfortunately, in such a competitive world, when people are constantly trying to sabotage one another and to undercut one’s talent and very existence, one to use whatever means one has at his or her disposal to protect oneself. For God’s sake, Rachel was already drugged once. Shine makes it extremely clear that no one else in this environment is going to look out for you—not the CEOs, not your idol sunbaes, not your trainers, and not your fellow trainees. Rachel is simply a product of her environment, and instead of judging her, I think we should all feel sad that her world drags her down to that level in order to survive. 


Honestly, after reading Shine, my heart aches for all the K-pop trainees. Shine does an amazing job demonstrating the countless sacrifices not only the trainees make, but also their families. They miss birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, the normal high school experience, and so much more. It really put me to mind of the military life, where deployments separate loved ones for years, put lives at risk, and require countless sacrifices in order to have that career. It seems so severe that children at such young ages enter into the type of lifestyle that usually puts lives on the line, and this goes on for years, with so little sleep and few kind words, if any. I think that is one of the main questions Shine poses, is it really all worth it? Personally, I don’t know how anyone survives this world, let alone is able to shine in it. It’s clear that the author herself, Jessica Jung, has a lot of strong feelings about her own experiences: 


“Didn’t anyone ever tell you? This glamour? This fame? It’s all an illusion set up by the label. The execs. And then they’ll take everything away from you, framing you as an irresponsible, high-maintenance diva, so that no other label will want to touch you with a ten-foot pole.”  


After reading Shine, I feel like I even better understand why Jessica Jung had to share these feelings under the guise of fiction—it’s clear that she could get sued otherwise. And I’m so proud of her for having the bravery to expose what the K-pop industry is really like. Shine is definitely a must-read for any K-pop fan. I would’ve loved to give the novel a higher rating, especially as Jessica is my ultimate bias, but the writing, although better than I expected, was subpar. Though Shine does a great job when it is dealing with the darker themes and realities of the K-pop world, it makes a few odd writing choices.


For instance, the inclusion of Korean words was reminiscent of fanfic writers who love to sprinkle these cultural terms in just to prove that they know them. It was also strange to me that most of the novel is in English, except for these words, but one assumes everyone is speaking Korean in South Korea, right? So the reader can reasonably infer that the novel is simply being translated to English, but then why are these terms included? One scene in particular, where Rachel is on a bus, is completely in Korean. Having watched a ton of K-dramas, I was able to translate this scene, but it was really out of place and took me right out of the novel to wonder why it was in Korean instead of English like the rest of the novel, when it wasn’t even an important conversation.


 I think Shine was just trying to give readers more glimpses of Korean culture and an interest in the language, but its lack of consistency was off-putting and was ultimately, poorly executed. Oddly enough, these inclusions of the language did not feel very authentic, despite having been written by a Korean-American who has lived in South Korea for most of her life. Likewise, the swearing of the characters seemed very out of place and mature with the overall simplicity of the writing style. It was almost like the novel couldn’t decide to whom it was geared towards.


However, these are just small issues I had in an enlightening and entertaining read that I couldn’t put down. After reading Shine, I feel it’s more important than ever for us all to support our K-pop favorites. They’ve been through so much. I’m looking forward to the sequel to Shine, as it will focus on Rachel’s success in the K-pop industry, and I’m curious how closely it will follow author Jessica Jung’s own career. 

Book Review : Shine - Blogging with Dragons

Posted November 2, 2020 in Book Reviews, K-Dramas, Young Adult


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