So we’ve all heard of K-pop at this point. The K-pop genre is known globally now and, even if it’s associated mainly with big-name groups like BTS and Blackpink, this idea of idols has been catching on. There are tv shows and mobile games that are known globally, which revolve around this idea of idols training to become the next big thing. And of course, there are also novels about K-pop and idol experience. One such novel is XOXO by Axie Oh.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of the book just yet, let me give you a quick breakdown. Our main character is a cello prodigy named Jenny, whose big goal is to get into a prestigious music conservatory, but her plan is turned upside down when she meets Jaewoo one night in L.A. Right as she’s letting down her walls and rethinking things, he disappears.
A few months later, she moves to South Korea and meets Jaewoo at an elite art school, where she finds out that he’s a member of a popular K-pop group. K-pop idols are forbidden from dating and thus start their adventures of navigating their feelings and responsibilities.
Alright, so maybe that doesn’t sound like the big K-pop deep dive that I was hyping up, but let me say it’s even better than that. This novel is a tightly packed ride with plenty of romance, drama, self-exploration, and emotional twists from start to finish. It feels a lot like a K-drama in spirit, and it keeps you turning the pages long after you’d planned to sleep.
There are many characters to dig into and get to know throughout the novel, but of course, the standouts are Jenny and Jaewoo and their story. Exploring the K-pop industry and the pressures of being an idol are a large part of what stuck with me after finishing the novel.
As a fan of idols and the community surrounding them, I’ve always been fascinated by the strict curation of image and branding that comes with the idol title. My journey into idol communities started with mobile games and anime about idols but these franchises. At the same time, they give an interesting perspective and critique on some of the harsh realities of idol life, which tend not always to be the most grounded in reality.
Between foreign prince characters hailing from fictional countries and strange manner of speech that more closely resemble the monologues from classical Russian fiction, it can be hard to take anything about the idol industry seriously. Many details are just glossed over. For example, the very well-known no dating rule amongst idols is hardly ever brought up in the media I’ve consumed because they need to make these characters (and the possibility of a relationship with them) consumable by fans and followers.
XOXO, on the other hand, doesn’t cut corners with the truth of things. Of course, it is a fictional novel, so it’s hard to say that absolutely everything is realistic. Still, the author does go out of her way to show that there are many struggles with being an idol, especially a popular one. For example, Jeawoo isn’t even allowed to have a phone which isn’t monitored, and his group’s schedule is packed so tight that the concept of free time doesn’t exist for them.
One of my favorite scenes by far is a discussion between the characters about mental health and idol life. Mental health needs to be discussed much more openly in general and to see this tackled alongside something as glamorized as the idol lifestyle was eye-opening. Many parts of the novel and its plot weren’t always realistic, but scenes like this helped make the reader feel a deep emotional connection with the story.
And, of course, there’s much more than K-pop explored in the novel. There’s a large cast of characters, and the connections between them are central to the story. For example, Jenny’s struggles are related to her friends around her and her mother and grandmother. In addition, the setting and descriptions of South Korea are so immersive and magical that the love and care that portrayed the culture can be felt.
All in all, XOXO is a bit like a fairytale in how it leaves the reader feeling at the end. However, for all the struggles that characters went through, a happy ending is found, and you can’t help rooting for everyone. From struggles of identity and career to finding love and friendships despite the obstacles, this novel is nothing short of an emotional masterpiece.
This novel is a love letter to the struggles of young adulthood while providing a much-needed sense of hope, with the added spice of K-pop idols and life in the entertainment industry.
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