WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you have not read the book and do not wish to be spoiled, turn back while you still can.
As a second-generation K-Pop fan, I knew I had to get my hands on ex-Girls’ Generation member Jessica Jung’s book “Shine” as soon as I heard about it. As K-Pop fans, we’ve always had an idea of what the K-Pop industry is like, and Jessica’s book is probably the closest thing we can get to a tell-all from one of the top K-Pop stars of her time, if not of all time.
In “Shine”, Korean-American Rachel Kim is a long-time trainee under DB Entertainment and is competing for a chance to debut in the company’s latest girl group. Jessica confirmed that Rachel is a reflection of herself and that the book is based on her real-life experiences with a little bit of fiction (probably to avoid having SM Entertainment and the other Girls’ Generation members sue her).
What the industry really is
The book paints the K-Pop industry in a very bleak, harsh, and dramatic way, which is a far cry from the bubbly façade it presents. That’s partly why I was determined to carry on despite the writing style not being my cup of tea. Trainee life is probably even more grueling than Jessica makes it out to be in the books. We are all aware of the competition that comes with debuting, especially for a company of DB’s caliber. (This is assuming DB is based on SM Entertainment.) It’s not surprising that trainees would do everything, including (trigger warning: drugs and weight issues) drugging each other and manipulating each others’ weight, to outdo each other just for a chance at debut.
There was a good attempt to tackle important issues, whether in or out of K-Pop. That moment wherein Rachel talks about her experience as being one of two Asian girls in her school in New York was an excellent and realistic way of showing the many ways people go through racism. I may not have personally experienced it, but I’m sure people who have moved abroad have experienced something similar, if not exactly the same thing. The same goes for when Rachel and Jason bond over being both half-white and half-Korean, and the feeling of not really belonging in either race. And of course, the comment every K-Pop idol who grew up abroad must have heard at some point in their lives: “Your English is really good.“
[Shine had] a good attempt to tackle important issues, whether in or out of K-Pop.
Another good moment in the book was how Jessica tackled the blatant sexism and double standards in the industry. I’m not sure whether it was intentional that the male love interest Jason Lee was intentionally written to be dense about how unfairly privileged the men are over women. If that was intentional, then congratulations. I was frustrated enough to want to strangle him for being so willfully ignorant about the rampant misogyny going on. It makes one wonder how much male idols and trainees get away with stuff. Not even Kang Jina, who was supposedly the most popular member of the girl group Electric Flower was spared from the misogyny of the industry. Although kudos to Jason for kind of seeing the light and trying to be better.
Jessica also tackles woman empowerment and staying strong no matter the circumstances. This is evident in the part where Rachel and her classmates meet the women divers in Jeju. The divers talk about being strong and motivating themselves to keep going even when they’re tired. It was a nugget of motivation for both Rachel and the readers. It was a seemingly recurring theme in the book. Jessica constantly reminds the reader to not lose your will to keep going even when times get difficult.
Honestly, one of the things I would have loved to see more of is how Rachel struggled to juggle both her life as an idol trainee and her life as a regular girl. The way she and her good friend fellow trainee Akari drifted apart due to Rachel speeding on ahead as an idol and Akari being left behind was a story I would have personally loved to read. How Rachel ended up having to miss her dad’s most important moment or that annual tradition she does with her best friends also hit close to home.
Another angle I would have preferred for Jessica to explore was the strained relationship between Rachel and her mother. Without coming off as too spoiler-y, Rachel and her mother have a lot more in common than people would think. To be fair, Rachel’s mom reminds me of my own mom in some aspects, especially once I understood the reasoning behind Rachel’s mom’s actions.
While Jessica has confirmed that Rachel is herself, as I read the book, I can’t help but think senior idol Kang Jina is also some form of Jessica. All the wisdom that she was imparting to Rachel had to be a form of Jessica ranting to the readers. The way Kang Jina was unceremoniously kicked out of DB gives me war flashbacks to when Jessica parted ways with SNSD. Why would someone of Kang Jina’s caliber care so much about Rachel when they don’t even know each other personally? If anything, I feel like the interactions between Kang Jina and Rachel are the present Jessica talking to her past self more than anything else.
On the plus side, Rachel’s younger sister Leah was confirmed to be based on Jessica’s real-life younger sister singer/actress Krystal. In the chaotic K-Pop world Rachel was living in, Leah was a solid, steady presence in her life. Leah’s story also felt more real to me as well. She was a new girl in a new culture who just went to a new country to follow her older sister’s dream. The culture shock she goes through and her struggles to make new friends and fit in were all too relatable. I know exactly what it’s like to have people hang out with me just because they wanted something and not because they wanted to be my friend. Leah’s struggles just hit way too close to home. However, we all know what happens to real-life Leah, so I wouldn’t mind reading a Leah spin-off if it ever happens.
The Good and the Bad
Unfortunately, as much as Rachel is the protagonist, the way she was written made it very difficult for me to root for her success. Although there was an attempt to show her flawed, human, and relatable side, I still felt that “I’m better than everyone” vibe from her. There was always someone there to bail her out or to help her along during a crisis, so I didn’t really feel like she was struggling to shine. It almost felt like she was a Mary Sue as I read it. Considering this is practically shameless self-insert fanfic, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Rachel can almost do no wrong and that whenever something bad happens, it’s as if the reader is meant to pity her. It’s always someone else’s fault rather than Rachel making poor choices and having to face the consequences. Her goody-two-shoes act reminds me of the type of K-Drama leads I like the least — those who rarely stand up for themselves. She hardly has a personality, which is another disappointment for me, especially when Jessica has such an interesting one. This lack of an actual personality makes it hard to empathize with Rachel and side with her. In fact, as much as the main antagonist Choo Mina is her own level of bitchy and deserves to rot in hell, I found myself hoping for Mina to drag Rachel to hell with her.
Speaking of Choo Mina, I felt like she had the potential to be a great antagonist. The bite, sass, and motivation were there, as well as what could have been a personality worth looking into. There’s a backstory worth telling about her as well. The pressure to always do well and please her family, and whether Lizzie and the other girls were actually her friends and not just minions, were some things Jessica could have delved into. There were some good moments for potential character development, but unfortunately, they never happened. I understand that Rachel and Mina can never be friends, especially when they have too much history behind them. However, they proved they can be civil with each other and bond over the things they had in common when they weren’t biting off each other’s heads or trying to outdo each other. It’s just so frustrating every time it felt like Mina was going to be given some depth, she goes back to being a one-dimensional token bitch the next time we see her.
Going back to Jason Lee, there was something about him that made him feel unattainable to an average girl. He doesn’t have the usual relatability of usual rom-com male leads. Rachel lucked out on being in the right place at the right time for fate to do its work. Then again, it’s like the typical rich man-poor woman trope in K-dramas, except this time it’s a successful idol and struggling trainee trying to work things out. It makes for good fantasy writing, but that hardly ever happens in real life. Then again, Rachel is unfairly pretty and talented, so that ups her chances compared to other girls.
The love story between Jason and Rachel would have been cute if it wasn’t potentially damaging to Rachel’s potential career. Even in real life, it’s always the female idols who take more damage when caught in dating rumors compared to their male counterparts. In this case, there’s also a bit of a power imbalance. Jason is the industry’s current It Boy who can get what he wants as soon as he says it. On the other hand, Rachel is a trainee trying to get her big break. In real life, a relationship like that would have been very difficult, especially with one of them being under so much pressure not to fuck up at all while the other can just do whatever they want because they have money, power, and influence. Honestly, I’m glad that one ended the way it did in this book. I mean, this is K-Pop. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Although my inner romantic thinks that it would be nice for them to get back together when both of them are on somewhat more equal footing.
When reading fanfiction, I hate the use of romanization, so, unfortunately, Jessica’s use of it felt off to me while reading the book. I understand that Jessica wanted to encourage people to learn Korean, but as someone learning the language, I didn’t feel it was very helpful. I wouldn’t have minded the romanized Korean if there were footnotes, just like Kevin Kwan did in his “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy whenever he used local terms. That method would have been more helpful to those interested in learning the language and give more context to those who want to be entertained.
The rookie novelist
Jessica said she wanted to promote the book as a rookie novelist rather than as a K-Pop star, so I shall treat her book the way I would treat any other rookie novelist. I didn’t have many expectations going into the book. What can you expect from a K-Pop star who isn’t trained to be a writer? The screencaps going around the internet also had me lowering my expectations, and honestly, I’m glad for those screencaps existing. Otherwise, my expectations would have been much higher, and I would have been more sorely disappointed.
At best, “Shine” is a lighthearted read for those who want to kill time. It’s that type of book that’s easy to finish in one sitting. Unfortunately, it’s not a book that people can take seriously. I feel like I have read better fanfiction on AO3 compared to the book. “Shine” itself makes one feel like they’re watching a typical K-Drama with the amount of kilig, drama, and suspense it has. Take out the fact that this is based on the author’s personal experiences, and it becomes another typical glorified y/n fanfiction. Personally, it’s not a book I’d willingly read while sober. But I have to admit, the book became more fun to read once I had more alcohol in my system.
What kept me hooked wasn’t the plotline, nor did I really find myself rooting for Rachel’s success. It was the desire to find the “Easter eggs” or “tea” Jessica can possibly spill that kept me going. I have to admit, some references were rather subtle, but there were some others that were pretty in your face to us second-generation fans. Even the original release date, September 29, was an Easter egg. Honestly, I just want to know who Jason Lee is based on, and which Girls’ Generation member is which Girls Forever member. There are clues to imply who they are, but the evidence is inconclusive. Maybe more will be revealed in a future book. *fingers crossed*
Jessica said she wrote the book because she had a story to tell. There’s no doubting that. She has a career that only other K-Pop stars can dream of, and this has been her life for the last 20 years (if you include her trainee years). If anyone can tell the story best, she is one of the top candidates to ask. It’s just unfortunate that I don’t feel like “Shine” did her pre-debut story justice.
(P.S. Jessica, please get a better ghostwriter for the next books. I love you.)