Get ready, K-Pop fans – an actual K-Pop star has released a semi-fictional book about what it’s actually like to be an idol, and we are here for it. Before we review Shine though, let’s take a deeper look into who Jessica is, shall we?
Jessica Jung. OG K-Pop fans know the pain we felt when, on 30th September 2014, Jessica walked out of her agency in tears, no longer a part of her girl group. And not just any band either – Girls Generation is widely known in South Korea as ‘the Nation’s Girl Group’, a rarely bestowed honorific. They are also the 11th best selling girl group of all time (the Spice Girls top this list) and have the 2nd and 8th best selling girl group albums of all time in South Korea and Japan respectively. Considering that they debuted in 2007 when the K-Pop scene was only finding its footing internationally, these records are impressive indeed.
Following her intriguing and much speculated-about departure, Jessica went on to establish her own fashion label Blanc and Eclare, which now has sixty locations around the world. She also signed with Coridel Entertainment and entered acting, solo music and reality TV. Now, exactly six years after she left South Korean showbiz giant SM Entertainment, Jessica has released Shine, a semi-fictional account of K-Pop trainee Rachel Kim as she prepares to debut as an idol. Don’t worry, this review is spoiler-free!
Rachel Kim is seventeen, Korean-American, and a trainee under the hugely influential DB Entertainment – which coincidentally also has the same number of letters in its name as SM does. So far, extremely thinly veiled. Right from the get-go, Rachel tells us that she isn’t very liked by the other trainees because of ‘preferential treatment’, which means she gets to stay at home with her family while all the other trainees have to live at the company dorms. Rachel’s mum, dad, and little sister Leah have uprooted themselves from New York to let her pursue her dream, and that is just the first layer of the pressure she faces from all angles – she has to prove she’s got what it takes. Unfortunately, the road to debuting is filled with mean trainees, handsome, forbidden boys, strained friendships, and enough backstabbing for any orthopedics department to have a field day.
It is clear from her style that sophisticated writing may not be Jessica’s primary talent. That does make sense, considering she has already established her prowess at singing, dancing, acting, modeling, and fashion designing. Adding writing to that list too would just have been unfair to the mortals. I daresay those unfamiliar with the KPop industry or Asian culture would find it a tad difficult to keep up with the barrage of names in the beginning – Rachel Kim simply has too many characters involved in her life (which sounds about right for an Asian girl).
The plot of Shine tries its best to throw some curveballs towards the end but remains largely predictable on the whole as well. Moreover, it must be said that the vast majority of characters are rather unlikeable and sadly underdeveloped for the most part, which gives the audience little emotional investment in their journeys. Indeed, one of the few interesting dynamics was between Rachel and her fellow trainee Mina, whose father is an influential figure in South Korea.
Another odd feature about Shine is the random name dropping of actual celebrities in this self-proclaimed fictionalized world. Apparently, Rachel’s school gets Simone Biles as a gymnastics instructor? And Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner frequently drop by the agency café because the food is just so darn good? There’s also mention of partying with Lindsay Lohan and shipping Klaus and Caroline from The Vampire Diaries. It does feel at times like she opened a Quora article about what kids are into these days in an effort to make the story relevant to her young adult target audience, which sometimes ends up making Rachel’s world even more detached and inaccessible than it already was.
I must, however, give props to Jessica for addressing several problematic elements of the K-Pop industry – the suffocating rules, the double standards for male and female artists, the cutthroat competition, and the pressure to debut before you’re ‘too old’ (meaning 20), the staged interactions, and the ridiculous schedules. A lot of this would be new information for those who haven’t delved into the rabbit hole of K-Pop generations and fancafé conspiracy theories, so in a way, this book does shine a spotlight (see what I did there) on the ugly side of global adoration as well.
For those familiar with the story of Jessica and Girls Generation, here’s a tip – don’t try and match fictional characters to real-life individuals, you will only drive yourself insane. According to Jessica herself, the story is ‘semi-fictional’ and most characters are compounds of different people she met over the years as a trainee and later an idol. The amount of insider information this book provides may no doubt also lead KPop fans to question every band interaction and idol relationship they have seen before. It’s probably best not to think about it too much.
All in all, Shine is a cathartic experience for Jessica and an entertaining read for your average K-Pop fan. My rating would be a 6.5/10. What’s more, it definitely sets up a solid premise for its sequel, the imaginatively named Bright, rumored to be out next year. There is also talk of a film adaptation to be released on Netflix, which sounds very promising. Too much time has passed since Crazy Rich Asians came out, and I for one am very much looking forward to a YA film with an all Asian cast. I mean, I think it’s time All The Boys of the Kissing Booth made some space, don’t you?
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