BookBrowse Reviews Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park

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Love in the Big City

by Sang Young Park

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park X
Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2021, 240 pages

    Paperback:
    Nov 15, 2022, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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Love in the Big City follows its gay protagonist through a series of ill-fated romances in Seoul, told with warmth and humor.

Set in Seoul, South Korea, Love in the Big City is a warm, playful, emotionally rich novel that weaves together four interconnected vignettes to tell the story of its narrator, Park Young, as he matures over the course of his 20s and 30s. Split into four sections—each of which could conceivably stand alone as a short story—Love in the Big City first introduces the friendship between Park Young and Jaehee, a fellow student who, like Young, spends most of her free time drinking and hooking up with random men. The two move in together, sharing everything, and the platonic love between them is palpable; Young keeps Jaehee's favorite Marlboro cigarettes stocked and Jaehee buys him his favorite frozen blueberries. When Jaehee uncharacteristically decides to settle down and get married after years of the two sharing their young and free lifestyle, Young feels betrayed and unmoored, which leads to a series of inauspicious romantic trysts.

The novel's second section, and its coldest, picks up a few years after the first, and is dedicated to Young's relationship with a handsome, closeted, unnamed older man who only shows affection in secret, and who lectures Young on the perils of American imperialism. In spite of the apparent incompatibilities between the two—Young is comfortable with his sexuality and politically indifferent—he falls head over heels. The relationship ends badly, and Young receives a shock when the man tries to re-enter his life after years of no contact. The final two sections, both wistful and melancholy, go on to explore Young's most serious (and ironically, celibate) relationship with a young man named Gyu-ho, the only one capable of breaking down Young's barriers.

Rather than being told strictly chronologically, Love in the Big City flits around between past and present in all four of its chapters. Each chapter is centered on a person or relationship significant to Young, but they cohere to form a fuller picture of the life of the novel's sardonic, flirtatious, fun-loving protagonist. One of the throughlines is Young's fraught relationship with his mother, an avid Christian who had him institutionalized as a teenager when she saw him kissing another boy. She is now dying of cancer and he becomes her caretaker, the strain of which tears at him as he attempts to reconcile their relationship while also coming to terms with her homophobia and her inability to accept him for who he is. Young himself receives a medical diagnosis in one of the novel's later chapters—one which affects his romantic relationships as well as his health. In his characteristically flippant fashion, he names his infection "Kylie," after Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue.

Told with equal parts pathos and humor, Love in the Big City is a tender examination of young queer life in South Korea's most dynamic city. This book's emotionality washes over the reader in waves—Young is by turns disaffected and vulnerable with the reader, and the result is a pitch-perfect tension between the lighthearted and the heavy. The characterization and the narrative voice in Love in the Big City are so distinct and nuanced that Young feels like an old friend by the end of the novel; someone you feel that you know on an intimate level, in spite of having only spent a little over 200 pages with him. This novel may be short and sparse, but it stays with you, both as an affecting snapshot of one person's life, and as a piece of fiction that digs into the universal question of what it means to love and to receive love in return.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

This review first ran in the January 5, 2022 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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