Hart & Seoul by Kristen Burnham is a contemporary romance between a high-schooler and a K-Pop undercover in the U.S. This is Burnham’s debut YA novel.
Merilee Hart has been doing her best to keep things together since her mother left, her art a welcome escape from her depressing new reality. But things seem to go even more awry the moment her next door neighbor’s enigmatic and mysterious nephew arrives from South Korea. Lee is moody, cocky, and utterly infuriating.
But when Merri’s closest friends betray her and her father crushes her dream of going to art school, Merri finds herself drawn to Lee, who seems to live within even greater shadows than her own. And just when she thought things couldn’t get crazier, Merri’s world is upended when she discovers Lee’s big and bizarre secret…he is none other than a runaway member of the K-pop mega-group Thunder.
It’s not long before Thunder’s fans, the Storm Chasers, begin to close in on Lee, ready to do whatever it takes to return their favorite idol to his rightful place in the band. Faced with the prospect of even more heartbreak and caught up in an international whirlwind that has a life of its own, Merri realizes that she must find a way to mend herself, gain control of her life, and pursue her dreams—her heart and soul depend on it.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Mascot Books through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
I went into this book expecting a descent contemporary romance plot, with the added twist of the male lead being a K-pop star. I expected a fair amount of Korean cultural explanation to pop up because of this. I was a bit nervous, since it appears this is all coming from a white author who is probably super into K-pop/K-drama (heck, I am, too!), so my expectations for accuracy were set pretty low. Still, I managed to feel uncomfortable reading this despite all my fore-knowledge in this.
For one thing, I just didn’t believe in the characters or the plot of this story. The book starts out with an immediate plot twist (cheating!) that ends up helping form a bond between the main character, Meri and the K-pop idol, Lee (yes, he’s called Lee throughout the story, even after Meri learns his whole name, which I found to be extremely awkward, especially since “Lee” is very fluent in English and probably would have been accustomed to how English people address one-another). When Meri finds out her best friend is cheating with her boyfriend (which I saw coming immediately, I don’t know why she didn’t), she and Lee form a bond over the fact that both of them have suffered from cheating.
But the chemistry is just not there. Meri, for one, is a rather difficult MC to like. She’s very brash, despite being put off by Lee’s brashness throughout the story, and she definitely doesn’t come across as very likable. For some reason, she really just rubbed me the wrong way, mostly because she seemed incapable of politely learning about Lee’s culture. She turned many of his likes/dislikes into an issue (she even calls him Mr. Kimchi!!!) and makes a point of being blown away by almost every single thing she learns about Korean culture. I mean, I feel like at a certain point, especially if you are dating a person from another culture, you should be open and interested in learning about their culture, and be respectful of differences. Meri did none of this and almost every thing she learned about Lee became a point to mock or make fun of. I just didn’t get why he ever became interested in her. Or she him – but actually, I do know why she fell for him.
This story suffers from a lot of cliches. For one thing, the book sets up the whole hat-to-love aspect. But further than that, Meri’s reasons for falling for Lee seem to mostly stem from his “attractiveness” which she brings up a point of commenting on in every instant they’re with each other. He almost takes on an Edward-Cullen-from-Twilight hotness, you know, the kind where literally everyone finds him attractive, which is super unrealistic because everyone has different tastes. Anywhere she and Lee go, Meri always makes sure to note how women around Lee are smitten with him. It happens almost constantly and it was so annoying.
This book also suffers from lack of plot. It’s a very ambling book with a lot of time given to Meri waxing poetic on why her life is so crazy because her mom just left her family. This is a genuinely difficult topic, but Burnham doesn’t handle it with much skill. It becomes a tell instead of show element that takes up far too much of the book’s time. Most of the book ends up being Meri thinking through each problem that comes her way: her dad not wanting her to apply to art colleges because he think’s she’ll turn out like her mother, Meri going back and forth over weather she should upload art she’s made of her and Lee’s interactions, Meri ranting to herself about her cheating boyfriend and best friend – I have a particular issue with this one, since it’s an important plot development. Bree, Meri’s best friend from childhood, cheats with Meri’s boyfriend while Meri is away on vacation. And even though they’re childhood friends, Bree has absolutely no guilt for doing this. It’s kind of unbelievable.
I’ve gone on enough, I think, but I will say one thing more: the Korean phrases added to this book annoyed me for a few reasons: one: the Romanization of some of the phrases did not seem accurate to me (as I’ve had a passing interest in learning Korean and have a few textbooks to back me up here). It seemed the author was trying to write out how the word or phrase sounds when heard, but this, I think, was the wrong track to take and it was irritating. Two: it didn’t make sense for Lee to use random Korean phrases when talking to Meri as it’s well established that Lee is super-fluent in English. From what I hear, it’s pretty weird for someone who is fluent in another language to pepper their speech with their mother language for words they already know. Three: Lee’s choppy language didn’t seem accurate either, when he was speaking English, because, since he’s fluent (again, it’s mentioned multiple times that Lee got the best tutor and is very good at speaking English) that he wouldn’t know how to put together English sentence. Instead, this felt, to me, like Burnham was falling back on a stereotypical speech pattern used for Asian characters. If you look at other K-pop idols who are fluent in English (I’m thinking of Taecyeon), they don’t talk like that. It didn’t fit and instead came off as a bit racist to me.
Literary Value: 2/5
This book was just not well put together. The plot was ambling, the character development was pretty shoddy, and I just for the life of me could not understand the romance between Meri and Lee. I felt like the story has strong appeal in terms of what it’s setting out to be, but it falls short of that mark.
For one thing, major characters are not really fleshed out. Besides Meri, the other characters only receive minimal attention – with the exception, on occasion, from Lee. Lee is fleshed out a bit, but, in my opinion, not enough. I have no real knowledge, by the end of the book, about what he likes to do in his spare time, if he actually enjoys some aspects of being an K-pop star, what he looks for in a partner. He just comes across as very one-dimensional at times, which is frustrating since he’s the lead. Other characters, like Bree and Luke, are mostly just props or plot devices that push the story in a direction. I have absolutely no idea, for instance, why Bree doesn’t feel sorry at all for cheating with Meri’s boyfriend. I don’t know why Bree is desperate to have Meri forgive her despite her not being sorry. Things like this are irksome in a story since this is supposedly a realistic fictional story.
The plot itself is a rambling mess and comes across more as a rough draft than an actually polished story. There are so many elements brought into the story that are eventually just resolved but without any real hashing out. For instance, this story covers: cheating, attempted suicide, culture-shock, celebrity status, abandonment by a parent, college applications, to name a few. So many elements, but none of these elements is really explored all the way, so a lot of the story remains really shallow and lacks any punch. Since Burnham is a first-time author, I’ll cut her some slack here and hope that the feedback she gets from this book will aid her in any future writing projects.
Entertainment Value: 2/5
I wanted to like this book so bad! I love K-pop and K-dramas! I love contemporary YA fiction! But this book just left me wanting in so many ways. I didn’t enjoy the MC at all! She was actually rather annoying and her lack of respect/understanding of another culture was so cringe-worthy! Lee, the male lead, is first obnoxious but then somehow becomes thoughtful and understanding without any development to aid this.
I didn’t enjoy how aimless this story seemed to be. I could not tell where it was going and the journey to the end just took so many random turns. If I liked the MC more, I might not have minded this so much, but since I didn’t care for her, it was a struggle to get through this book.
Cover Art: 2/5
It’s a bit bland of a cover, in my opinion. I don’t really like covers that are mostly just a color with the title and author text and nothing else. There’s nothing to grab my attention, my eye has nowhere to go. I also think the subtle Korean text is just too subtle – I can barely make it out. It’s almost not worth having it there. I guess I just expected something with a little more pop, since it’s about a K-pop star. Instead, it just looks really generic and nothing really hints at what the story might contain.
Overall Rating: 2/5 Jars of Kimchi
For being a book about a particular interest of mine (K-pop/K-drama), this book did not do it for me. The romance is lack-luster, the majority of the characters are underdeveloped, and the plot is rather aimless for most of the story. I think this book suffers from trying to do too many things. Is it a romance? Is it a story of the damaging affects of stardom on teenagers? Is it about a broken family? It just had too many elements crowding for attention and so the author spread the story too thin.
I also think this book could have used some sensitivity beta-readers. At least, it didn’t appear to have been vetted by people of Korean descent because I found certain parts of the story to be quite cringy and a bit racist in portrayal.
I’m pretty sure I won’t be recommending this book to anyone.
Thoughts & Thanks
Thanks for reading this review. It means a lot to me that you stopped by to see what I thought about this book. Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s talk about this book – have you read it? What did you think? Did you love it/hate it? I’d love to hear from you.