BRIANNA HIRAMI WRITES — So many people want to experience love – the butterflies that fill one’s stomach and makes their chest tighten when they see that special person. We have all seen the movies and read the books about true romance that make our hearts ache either because of a fairy tale ending or a tragic affair that is torn apart by unfortunate circumstances. But what about the love that does not include picnic dates in parks and long romantic walks on the beach? Isn’t that love something special too? Maybe love is experienced in other ways that someone may not directly notice?
Love leaves us feeling absolute joy and indescribable happiness, but it can also turn around and shatter our hearts in the worst possible ways. Choi Eunyoung flawlessly states through all seven of her short stories in Shoko’s Smile (2021) how love can come in many forms. Her short stories are packed with raw emotion that make the reader quickly feel the effects of loss, growth, and love.
Shoko’s Smile is Eunyoung’s second book that has been translated into English. Shoko’s Smile along with her other novel, Someone Who Cannot Hurt Me, have sold over 200,000 copies and are being translated into several languages. She has also received multiple awards including the Munhakdongne Young Writers Award. The translator of Shoko’s Smile, Sung Ryu grew up between South Korea, United States, and Canada. Ryu has translated other novels like Tower by Bae Myung-hoon and I’m Waiting for You: And Other Stories by Kim Bo-Young.
In one of Eunyoung’s short stories titled, “Xin, Chào, Xin Chào”, the reader sees the effortless friendship between Mrs. Nguyên and the unnamed protagonist’s mother. Their beautiful friendship starts off when their two children become friends at school, and the Nguyên family invites the protagonist’s family over for dinner. From there, all is history. The two women become inseparable, and they begin to visit each other every day. Their bond quickly strengthens as they consistently have dinner at the Nguyên household, and the two women give each other advice and small gifts.
The Nguyên family even helps release the tension between the protagonist’s parents. Before meeting the family, her parents used to constantly fight and lacked any sort of passion for each other. However, at joint family dinners they are all able to laugh, sing karaoke, eat good food, and talk normally. Even though their marriage is starting to heal, it is easy to tell that the protagonist’s mom feels more fulfillment with Mrs. Nguyên than with her own husband. Instead of walking on eggshells, as she does with her husband, her mom can be her true self around Mrs. Nguyên. Their relationship proves how a romantic relationship is not everything. The love that two best friends can have for each other can be far more genuine and real than the love between a married couple. There may not be that lustful passion that romantic partners have with each other, but why should this love not be considered as important as a traditional couple’s?
Things take an unfortunate toll when the protagonist ignorantly states how Korea has never invaded another country. Her friend corrects her by saying that Korean soldiers were the one who invaded his mother’s hometown in Vietnam and killed all her family. Her mother quickly apologizes for her terrible loss and tries to comfort her dear friend. Mrs. Nguyên brushes off the clearly uncomfortable topic but is deeply saddened by the memory of her deceased family. The protagonist’s husband only worsens the matter by insensitively saying: “I lost my brother, too, you know. Isn’t this business long over? Would you rather have us apologizing over and over again for it?”
After the night commences, the friendship between the nameless narrator’s mother and Mrs. Nguyên never recovered. Her mother visits Mrs. Nguyên several times after, but the tense and awkward air in the room never disappears. Even though they attempt to make each visit “normal,” their once beautiful love for each other shatters. They eventually stop visiting each other, and her mom mourns the loss of her best friend. She stops eating, talks less, does not sleep, and is disengaged from everyone. Her heart is broken and she longs for her best friend, a sentiment made palpable by the protagonist stating, “How preciously Mom must have looked after the piece of heart Mrs. Nguyên had given her. And when it shattered through no fault of her own, how deep must have been her despair…Mom said she didn’t remember those days very well, but for a long time she must have missed Mrs. Nguyên, who had loved her as her.”
Not all heartbreaks are over someone who you have been in a relationship with. Those may be the ones written about and portrayed most often in the music and film industries, but some of the worst heartbreaks are with people you genuinely thought had no chance of leaving your life. Couples break up and divorce all the time, but you never imagine “breaking up” with your best friend.
Eunyoung’s emphasis on the importance of love throughout her novel inspires people to embrace those around them. From the more conventional form of developing romantic feelings, to loving a close friend – it does not matter at the end of the day. Despite the struggles that life inevitably rains down, who you love is not as important as the love you feel for that person. Regardless of whether your heart belongs to your family, a friend, or a lover – the distinctions are irrelevant. Love, without a doubt, follows where the heart leads. Eunyoung teaches us that since life is unpredictable, it is necessary to enjoy the moments with the people closest to you because you never know what heartbreaks tomorrow may bring.
New book reviewer, Brianna Hirami, is a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University with a major in English and a minor in Asian and Pacific Studies. Brianna will continue following her passion in English and attend LMU again to receive her Master’s in Literature. She is interested in learning more about Asian culture by reading literature that is set in Korea and learning to speak Japanese.