Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review of The Foreign Student by Susan Choi

A Diamond in the Rough
Name of Book: The Foreign Student

Author Name: Susan Choi

ISBN: 0-06-092927-8

Type of Book: Adult, historical, 1940s?-1956, South, South Korea, Korean War, interracial relationship white female/asian male

Year it was published in: 1999


Highly acclaimed by critics, The Foreign Student is the story of a young Korean man, scarred by war, and the deeply troubled daughter of a wealthy Southern American family. In 1955, a new student arrives at a small college in the Tennessee mountains. Chuck is shy, speaks English haltingly, and on the subject of his earlier life in Korea he will not speak at all. Then he meets Katherine, a beautiful and solitary young woman who, like Chuck, is haunted by some dark episode in her past. Without quite knowing why, these two outsiders are drawn together, each sensing in the other the possibility of salvation. Moving between the American South and South Korea, between an adolescent girl's sexual awakening and a young man’s nightmarish memories of war, The Foreign Student is a powerful and emotionally gripping work of fiction. 

Characters: There are two main characters in the story; Chang Ahn (Chuck) and Katherine Monroe, who are both well rounded characters and have a lot of dimension in them. One can literally see their thoughts about problems, and walk inside the characters. Although the author attempts to show why Katherine and Chang are the way they are, I have a hard time figuring it out, despite reading the novel four times. It takes great work to read this story, and even then, in the end, you realize you didn't understand it. With that said, let's attempt to describe Katherine's and Chang's personalities. Katherine is best described as a lonely woman who sees herself as having only one purpose, and in beginning of the story she is shown as the idler who does odds and ends for the town of Sewanee. In her childhood she was fearless and often thoughtless, but her personality changed and she struck me as the type who cares very little in her adulthood and just lives day by day. Chang can best be described as more of a follower than a leader, often letting outside forces sweep him away from life and from himself. He is also a repressed character and like Katherine also lives day by day.Numerous times Chang makes attempts to become a leader but never quite can. What is most remarkable is the roles they tend to switch in the end; Chang becoming a leader and finally doing something instead of being passive, while Katherine decides to become a follower and lets the forces sweep her away. 

Theme: I tend to agree with the author's message about how people have to struggle with allowing the events to take hold of them so they are no longer themselves, and how passivity tends to be more negative than positive. I also agree with the message taht before one can find happiness then one needs to take care of the wounds. 

Plot: With this novel I often have difficulty saying what is the story about. Simply told, this story has three plotlines; Chang's life during Korean War, Katherine's life when she became an adolescent, and the years 1955-1956 when the two met. Introduction isn't immediate, that is, Katherine's and Chang's lives are told throughout the novel instead of right at the start, so in beginning, when Chang is escaping, nothing is really certain about Chang. Katherine, on the other hand, gets an introduction right away. Possibly the conflict was with themselves so to speak. Is it possible to move past their pasts and reach out for happiness? Do events define us or do we decide how events define us? The climax of the novel is unexpected, and so is the resolution. (At first I thought it happened one way, then I realized that I was wrong, that it happened another way.)

Author Information: Susan Choi was born in Indiana and grew up in Texas. She lives in New York City. The novel is based from an interview with her father and grew from an incident. She is also married and has two sons. 

Opinion: Unfortunately I forgot how I have heard of this book, possibly few months prior to March. I read about it and when half price books had a fifty percent sale I took a risk and got it. The first time I read it was confusing, not only because of the vocabulary either. The style was complex, the story was as well. But I still fell in love with the novel and have read it three or four times. Subsequent times became less confusing, although it takes a lot to visualize and to understand it. Personally speaking, I'd like to see a sequel to this novel so I could see if the happiness might be within their reach. 

5 out 5

(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)


  1. This is a book not to be put down and one to be reflected on for days past reading, definitely a book desirous of rereading, studying, and learning from the beauty of the thoughts portrayed. Even the horrific Korean war episodes are soothed by the descriptive genius of this new novelist. Her works are surely to be anticipated in books to come as she pens interest with her knowledge and genius.

  2. Wonderful book. Easy to read. I know the author's father and the book is loosely based on his life.


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