Review by Katie Gaston
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September 2020
352 pages, hardcover, $24.99 CAD, 9781534462519
Ages 14+, Grades 9+
Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Romance
Say something, Rachel. Say anything. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. My hands have gone clammy, and I can sense the other girls start to shift uncomfortably in their seats as my silence fills the room. The camera feels like a spotlight—hot and prickly on my skin—as my mouth dries up, making it impossible to speak.
Finally, the interviewer sighs and takes pity on me. “You’ve all been through so much together—training for six years before making it big! Has the experience been everything you hoped it would be?” He smiles, lobbing me an easy question.
“Yes,” I manage to croak out, a smile still plastered on my face.
What’s it like to be a K-pop star? Most of us will never know, but one of the world’s most famous K-pop singers, the legendary Jessica Jung, can help us imagine. In her debut novel, Shine, the former Girl’s Generation star tells a story of cutthroat competition in the music industry that’s inspired by her own life.
In modern-day Seoul, 17-year-old Rachel Kim spends grueling hours studying at the prestigious K-pop training academy, DB Entertainment. Though naturally talented and well-liked by her mentors, her teammates are not as easily won over, and she’s subject to frequent sabotages and manufactured scandals. Being a Korean-American makes it even harder, as her enemies frequently label her as an outsider unworthy of the rewards of her hard work. And while K-pop stars are seen as glamorous, perfect goddesses, the road to becoming one is mostly sweat and elbow grease.
DB Entertainment consider many aspects of a normal teenage life to be distractions to the work of a trainee idol. Rachel’s social life? Sayonara. Getting a smartphone? She’d have better luck being eaten by a shark. Oh, and Rachel has to kiss the idea of having a boyfriend goodbye, too. Unless she counts sharing french fries and singing duets with Jason Lee, the handsome heartthrob at DB Entertainment as falling slowly, and inevitably, in love.
Told through first-person narration, Shine feels very real. Jung broaches difficult topics, including the loss of identity and the feeling of displacement brought on by issues of gendered double standards, body shaming, and calorie-counting. While the novel touches on these issues, there could have been a closer examination of how this toxicity intersects with Rachel’s mental health and performance. The negative aspects of the industry mostly surface during drama between her peers, which places the responsibility on individuals, rather than the industry. This, as well as Rachel’s lack of support from her already sparse group of friends, can at times feel more like Rachel is overwhelmed by despair rather than taking action to handle and navigate the toxicity.
However, where Jung provides only a surface-level commentary on problems in the industry, she makes up for it in action and rich sensory details. Shine illustrates the unparalleled beauty of Korean culture, fashion and food so sumptuously described that it almost lifts off the page. The K-pop industry’s unforgiving and unpredictable nature keeps readers on their toes while an undercurrent of softness and intimacy underlines Rachel’s perspective on the world. The dialogue is concise and humorous, driven by interactions with family, enemies and best friends. The plot flows seamlessly, buoyed by Rachel’s unwavering passion and longing to share the wonders of K-pop music.
Young K-pop stans will love this behind-the-scenes perspective on the harsh reality of superstardom. It may create a closer connection between them and their favourite idols. Readers like me, who aren’t exactly diehard fans, will be inspired by Rachel’s character and strength. Jung brings the story to a crescendo of action and emotion when Rachel braves a storm with the highest highs and lowest lows. Though Rachel’s career is constantly at stake, her desires and genuine love for the music shows that she has the heart of a lion, showing up fearlessly and courageously in pursuit of her goals.
Shine is an entertaining, fast-paced read that is sure to tug at your heart, as it asks the ultimate question: Will Rachel’s dreams be shattered, or will she have the power to shine?
Katie Gaston is a Canadian writer. She is passionate about expression and studies English literature and music at the University of British Columbia. When she is not composing bad love songs on the piano, she is attempting to write the next great Canadian novel and is drinking too many iced matcha lattes.