The power of Twitter. What am I talking about you ask? You see, I contacted the publisher for a review copy because I read some negative tweets about “Hello, I Love You” by Katie M. Stout that intrigued me. Not that I expected bad things from the book, simply that any book generating that much chatter, especially a book set in Korea, was going to catch my interest. It may have not been the marketing they wanted for the book, but it worked on me. What can I say, I’m a curious sort.
So what did I think? I’ll explain in depth but suffice it to say, it was neither as bad as the tweets made it seem nor was it good. It was fluff – a beach read (not that there is anything wrong with that as I did read it while camping) – with a seriously unlikeable main character (my main issue) and cultural insensitivity/ignorance (it needed more research) but nonetheless, written by a writer with potential if she can get past those flaws. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Grace is a wealthy teenager in her last year of high school who flees to a boarding school in Korea to escape her celebrity music family. But unfortunately, she can’t escape music as easily as she can flee America and her family, as her new roommate’s twin brother is in a K-pop band.
I would like to think that even if you have never been to Korea, the ‘America good, Korea strange’ aspects in the book would annoy you but I’m probably projecting. However, the first thing I noted while I read the first few pages was how many times she used the word “Korean” or “Korea” – it was so pronounced that I stopped reading and counted. There were other ways of letting the reader know the location was all new to her without hitting the reader over the head with the ‘strangeness’. It was also slightly demeaning to the reader, almost if Stout thought we’d get confused where Grace was if she stopped saying it every sentence. By the end of the first chapter, I was ready to agree with the negative tweets that had first attracted my attention to the book.
However, I kept reading and it did get a little better. Stout isn’t a bad writer and was able to keep my attention mostly despite my dislike of Grace, who was unbelievably judgemental, preachy and unrealistic, and the farfetchedness of the tale (it’s meant to be a young adult romance). I can’t recall a main character I liked less than Grace, especially not one which I would assume is supposed to be likeable. She’s such a twit and makes Americans look stupid and ignorant (I’m not saying they are but man, the character is). With a little research, and I have to wonder if any was done other than watch a K-drama or two; some character development and growth; a more likeable lead character; and it might not have been such a bad book. Oh wait, then it would have been a completely different book.
Seriously, I liked the premise of the book – moving to another country and falling in love (hey, I’ve done it) – and if one can get past Grace, Stout isn’t a bad writer. She simply needs to work more on building likeable characters who grow with the story. She had all the ingredients – an angsty lead character far from home (although how she changed schools without her parents’ permission?), the chance to explore another culture and fall in love – for a good summer read. I like romances. I like K-dramas. I wanted to like this book but Grace as such a twit and never really grew out of it, even after being told she was a twit that I couldn’t.
But once I stopped taking the book seriously – as it wasn’t tackling any serious topics itself despite having issues it could have delved deeper into like suicide, drug use, alcoholism, grief, celebrity and/or culture diversity… none of which are truly explored or delved deeply into – and acknowledged that I was never going to like Grace, it was an easy 3 hour read (while lying in a hammock by a lake). Yeah, there were times I wanted to smack Grace up the side of her head – pretty much every time she opened her mouth – but I liked the rest of the characters for the most part. Okay, Sophie was a little over-the-top at the start with the ridiculousness of going all gaga over Grace simply because she was an American – “I’m so glad you’re here!… And you’re an American.” – but she was ultimately sweet.
And yes, it can be argued that it’s not unreasonable for Grace to have little-to-no knowledge of Korea or Korean culture when she first arrives and there are lots of people (not just Americans) who look at anything not their own culture as being strange rather than simply different. I’ll be the first to admit that I only knew a little about Korea before I went to teach there, as it was a spur of the decision (kind of like Grace’s), but I quickly learned quite a bit. My issue with Grace was she never embraced it, she never grew as a character or bothered to learn anything, and the book would have been so much better if she had done so instead of stayed her whiny judgemental self. Starting off that way, fine but man, living abroad is the perfect place to grow and I was looking forward to seeing how Korea played in her coming-of-age. But it never happened.
It would have been much more believable too, not to mention likeable and then I would never have called the book culturally insensitive. Oh, I like how she was called on being a twit but come on, I’m horrible at languages and I learned hangul (the Korean alphabet) over a couple of beers at a bar in my first week in Korea. Learning hangul is the easy part – it’s just like learning the English alphabet – the complexities of Korean are hard but not hangul. Which makes me wonder if the author knows hangul? Did she do any research on it?
Because while it can certainly be argued that Grace could have little knowledge before she arrives, Stout shouldn’t be so encumbered. But with all the inaccuracies (big and small) and lack of any true connection to the country the story is supposedly set in, I suspect she didn’t do much research. Things like having chopsticks as the only utensil when they’re eating soup (Koreans use spoons and chopsticks regularly, they even come in sets as I’ve got them as gifts). Plus there were little discrepancies like their ages which should all be the same (or at least within a year) as they’re all seniors in high school but Grace is 17 and Sophie & Jason are 19. Add into the fact that Yoon Jae calls Grace ‘noona’ one could infer that he’s younger and Sophie calls Tae Hwa ‘oppa’ so he should be older… then five high school seniors could theoretically age from 16-20. It drove me nuts although probably won’t bother most people (I’m odd about stuff like that).
On top of Grace being a twit (sorry, but I really don’t like the character) who says/thinks things like “What is with all these people speaking flawless English? I’m starting to feel uneducated.” or “I mean, normal music, like rock or hip hop or folk.”, the author didn’t really introduce Korea or K-pop to readers. The book could have been set in any generic Asian country based on the descriptions which was disappointing. No real descriptions on the country, the food, the island, or Seoul (when they visited it). Nor the K-pop industry for that matter. Jason – interesting that he and his sister went by their ‘English’ names but that was actually plausible – could have been any musician in any country. Oh, K-pop has similar groups – FT Island or CN Blue come to mind – but they had way too much freedom, among other things, and little that marked them as K-pop to warrant the frequent use of the genre.
Yes, it was cute at times but occasional cuteness can’t save a book. Nor was a truly a bad read as long as one suspends ones annoyance at Grace, certain implausibilities in the story and the fact that Korea really has little to do with the story. Yeah, the romantic in me liked budding romance which culminated with the epic gesture of Jason singing Hello, I Love You on a Korean variety show for Grace even if it’s an odd song choice. But overall, I was disappointed. I wanted more from the book. I wanted to connect with the characters and fall in love with them like I normally do when I read romances but really, all I truly felt was the need to smack Grace up the side of the head and I’m not a violent person. It held promise but didn’t live up to it.
It wasn’t bad but neither was it good. It’s a super easy read (I read it from cover to cover in under 3 hours) but will end up frustrating you with the ridiculous elitist ‘American good, Korean strange’ undertone to say nothing of all the tripe that Grace mutters. Seriously, does the girl not have a filter or any sensitivity? I wanted more from the book, the ingredients were all there but unfortunately, the author didn’t deliver.
While I don’t generally rate my reviews, in this case I will: 2/5
Have you read “Hello, I Love You”? What did you think of it?
Full disclosure: I requested and was sent a review copy of “Hello, I Love You” by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press. However, views expressed are mine and mine alone.