If You Leave Me
Set during the Korean War and the years beyond it, Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me explores both the split between duty and romantic desire and the way choices can echo through the generations for years to come.
Lee Haemi is a sixteen year old refugee from South Korea living in a camp by the coast thanks to the invasion of the northern army into her hometown, and shares her poverty-striken existence with her sick, but spirited younger brother Hyunki and her widowed, hard-driving, physically abusive mother. Whenever Hyunki seems well enough to last the night alone, Haemi dresses provocatively and flees the ramshackle house to escape to the city with her studious childhood best friend, the roguish Kyunghwan, and to drink and talk the evening away, occasionally pulling daring stunts along the way.
Kyunghwan has a crush on Haemi and Haemi is attracted to Kyunghwan, but she is also being courted by his cousin, the wealthy and self-sacrificing Jisoo, who wants to marry her before joining the Southern army and embarking on a search for his family, lost to him during the evacuation. Haemi is torn; she is aware of the only currency she has in her war-torn world – her virginity and her good breeding; Kyunghwan, studious and too young to serve, plans to stay behind for her but is too poor to help her; Jisoo has money enough to get treatments for her brother and food for her mother. She chooses to marry Jisoo.
As the war passes, Haemi’s desire to remain true to herself and independent remains her firmest notion. Both she and Jisoo return from war traumatized; she emotionally from serving in a field hospital and having the limitations of her choices shoved into her face frequently, he physically thanks to a fight with a member of his platoon that ruined one of his shoulders and left him with an injured arm. Though Haemi and Jisoo stay married and they have several children (daughters Solee, Mila, Eunhee and Jieun) together, Haemi yearns for the freedom of her unspent youth and deals poorly with her conscripted life as a mother. Domestic disasters build, and a rift develops between Jisoo and Haemi, and Haemi and her daughters. She works. He cheats. But Haemi has continued to love Kyunghwan from a distance with a fervor bordering on obsession, and when she initiates contact through the mail he comes home, ostensibly to visit his cousin and family, but secretly convinced he can win Haemi once more. The situation explodes, with repercussions all around.
Haemi is left to wade through the chaos of her life. Will she learn to cope with her circumstances? Or will she allow them to consume her?
AAR staffers Melanie Bopp, Shannon Dyer and Lisa Fernandes read Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me and are here to share their thoughts about the novel.
LF: How did you both feel about this one overall? I thought it did an excellent job of capturing the human toll the wastes of war can rain down on people’s heads.
SD: I agree one-hundred percent, Lisa. This novel really digs into the numerous ways war affects people. It’s important to hear the stories of those who serve on the front lines, but it’s equally important to listen to the stories of the everyday people who live through any war. The novel was difficult to read, but I honestly wouldn’t have wanted it to be any other way since it explores such deep and complicated subjects.
MB: This story is well outside my normal reading list, but I’m really glad about that. It’s definitely heavy (how else can you talk about a war and the ensuing fallout?) but the way it’s woven into everyday life works really well. Like you said, it’s excellently done.
LF: What did you think of Haemi? Could you sympathize with her? I liked the sense of practicality that is combined with her lonely bitterness; I think I maybe sympathized with her for half of the novel, at least until her daughters were born. After that, while I didn’t expect her to sacrifice for her children, she never seemed to prioritize them as she should, which the novel acknowledges but still irritated me. Yet she felt like an actual human being, an intensely flawed and real person, and I found her to be an excellent example of the maxim ‘all is circumstance’.
SD: Haemi is one of those imperfect characters who feels totally real. I don’t like reading about perfect people who lead beautiful lives. Instead, I want the characters I read about to feel like actual people. I want to feel like I could meet this or that individual out in the real world, and Haemi definitely fits that description. She doesn’t do the right thing all of the time. In fact, there were several occasions when I thought she handled a situation incorrectly, but her emotions were so utterly real and compelling.
MB: Haemi was a great character and she absolutely got on my nerves. All of her faults were perfectly designed to match my pet peeves. And I 100% loved reading about her! Like you said, Shannon, there was something compelling about her, and I enjoyed her even while hating her.
LF: What of Jisoo and Kyunghwan? Did you feel like Haemi made the right choice? I felt a lot of sympathy for Jisoo until he gave in to self-pitying cheating and harsh words when Haemi tried to curtail the number of kids they had; Kyunghwan took a while to grow on me, and he felt more self-centered, more egotistical – the wounding and desperate Heathcliff.
SD: I really wanted to like and feel sympathy for Jisoo, but he didn’t make it easy for me. I enjoyed watching him court Haemi, but, once they were married, it felt like things went south pretty quickly. Obviously, the war had a lot to do with this, but I couldn’t help but want more from Jisoo. He treated Haemi pretty shabbily at times, and I found that hard to forgive. I liked Kyunghwan a little better, especially in the second half of the novel. I felt like he matured quite a bit over the years and became a responsible, productive person. He always thought highly of himself though, and that grated on my nerves at times.
MB: I honestly didn’t like either of them. While I know it’s unrealistic to expect Haemi to not marry, given both the time and place, I really wanted to see her stand on her own in the world. Her relationship with Kyunghwan was sweet as they were children, but I was not comfortable with how his obsession with Haemi continued, and how it felt normalized in the second half of the book. As for how realistic the story felt while reading it, I really wanted to be Haemi’s friend and tell her to run far and fast. And Jisoo, I found ultimately disappointing. Their marriage seemed really good at first, but I can’t help but feel he started to turn on Haemi because she a)didn’t want to get pregnant again, and b)didn’t have a son. By the end, I wasn’t able to forgive either of them.
LF: Did you find either of the main romances compelling? I almost felt that Kyunghwan simply resembled freedom to Haemi, versus somebody whom she actually loved; if they’d run away together I don’t think they would’ve been happy either. Their relationship was seen as romantic in a way that really didn’t work for me, especially – as Melanie pointed out – by the second half of the novel; sometimes the narrative cast them as thwarted, tragic lovers, other times it truly saw the one-sided nature of their obsessive love, which couldn’t survive a communication breakdown or the weight of their pride. As for Jisoo, there were moments of levity and happiness between him and Haemi, but oftentimes the sour weight of their failed expectations bogged the relationship down into ugly moments of abuse; the ease of security blanching out the wildness between them. How about everyone else?
SD: The thing that struck me most was the fact that Haemi really had no good choices in the romance department. Both Jisoo and Kyunghwan pursued her in different ways, but it never felt like either of them appreciated her for the person she truly was. Instead, they each built up an idea of her in their minds and they each fell in love with who they thought she was. Of course, marriage isn’t always sunshine and roses, and I appreciated the realistic spin the author put on Haemi’s marriage to Jisoo.
MB: I’m not convinced this book actually has a romance. There are relationships, sure, but I never felt like Haemi actually loved either Jisoo or Kyunghwan. Jisoo was security, Kyunghwan was freedom. I’m pretty sure Haemi would have been a disaster either way.
LF: an excellent point can be made that what Haemi is really looking for during the whole novel is freedom – that this is her true love, and what she ultimately surrenders to at the novel’s end.
LF: Did you like the general style of the novel? Did you find the storytelling to be smooth? Or did you find some of the twists too abrupt?
SD: I found the novel very readable. As I said above, the subject matter was sometimes rough, but the storytelling felt smooth to me.
MB: Same here. I particularly like how we moved forward in time, in chunks that make sense when looking at someone’s life. And the division of the chapters between the different characters gives us parallel views of some things, while opening up other parts of the story, like Solee’s view of Kyunghwan’s visit later in the story.
LF: What did you think of our tastes of Hyunki and Solee? I loved how spirited both of them were.
SD: Solee’s chapters were some of my favorite parts of the story. I loved her intelligence and spunk. I was saddened by her relationship with her mother, but I also understood the reasons why it was that way. As for Hyunki, I really liked him as a child, but my feelings changed as he grew up. I found him to be quite selfish as an adult, and I mourned the loss of his boyish charm.
MB: Hyunki was a perfect foil for Haemi – I don’t think either of them loved anyone other than Hyunki.
LF: I’m giving the book a B+ overall; a very compelling story, solid character studies, well-researched and beautifully done, but the weight of the narrative and the frustratingly inconsistent when it comes to certain elements. How about you?
SD: I’d give it a B+ as well. It’s not the kind of book one can comfortably blow through in one sitting. Instead, I found myself digesting it in smaller portions. It left me with a lot to think about, the mark of a great book in my opinion.
MB: I’m giving it a B. It’s definitely a character study, a compelling story, and definitely a voice I haven’t read before. I wish I’d liked the characters more as people, but I was pretty fascinated by their stories.