The inspiration for Samuel Park‚Äôs impressive first novel, ‚ÄúThis Burns My Heart‚ÄĚ (2011), came from an episode in his mother‚Äôs life. He was intrigued by the idea that on the day before her wedding, another man had begged her to choose him instead of her intended. She told him no and went ahead with the marriage that soon shattered. Park chose to fictionalize this episode and imagine what life might be like for a woman who gave up a chance for happiness and had to live with the consequences of her choice.
Park‚Äôs novel opens in the post-war years in Daegu, South Korea. Soo-Ja, the beautiful and ambitious daughter of a wealthy business owner, dreams of moving away from her family to Seoul where she could lead a more exciting life. She refuses the services of a matchmaker and prepares to marry a handsome but lackadaisical young man, Min, whom she is sure will go along with her plan.
On the eve of her wedding, Soo-Ja is visited by Yul, a young medical student she knew from a revolutionary group who had loved her since then. He begs her to marry him instead. Though she is drawn to the vital young man with hair ‚Äúa bit long, like a European beatnik,‚ÄĚ she sends him away and marries Min.
After the wedding, Soo-Ja finds out what Min and his family had planned. Instead of the big life Soo-Ja imagined would be hers, she must move in with Min‚Äôs large family and become the dutiful daughter-in-law, the one who does whatever is asked. Tradition dictates that she must endure her circumstances and accept them even though it may ‚Äúburn her heart.‚ÄĚ The chilling consequences of her choice strike her most stridently at the times she encounters Yul and sees what kind of life she might have had.
It came as no surprise to learn that Park, who is a Korean-American, researched his novel by watching hours upon hours of Korean films set in the post-war years. He creates a vibrant portrait of the clothing, furnishings, food and customs of traditional Koreans. As the story develops and Soo-Ja and her family move to Seoul, he allows us to feel the force of its tall glass towers sprouting up all over and its swarming masses in the streets, eager for riches.
It is a treat to find a book with an absorbing story, compelling characters and imaginative writing that also sheds light on a country at a critical time in its history. ‚ÄúThis Burns My Heart‚ÄĚ is a gem.