Susan Choi’s “The Foreign Student”

I wrote previously about the breathtakingly beautiful language and style of Susan Choi when I described her novel A Person of Interest. I was so deeply impressed by it that I wanted to read her first novel, to see if she had evolved as a writer and become even better with experience.

Well, I have read it. And I’m even more impressed because The Foreign Student gives the impression of being created by a seasoned author, with many books under her belt. Yet it’s Susan Choi’s debut novel, and it’s extraordinary.

I personally never read blurbs on the book covers because they reveal too much about the characters and plot, thus ruining the suspense and surprise. I choose my reading material by authors’ names, book titles, or through recommendations by magazines and friends. That’s why I try not to be a spoiler for potential readers of the books I review. Which, for this very reason, can’t even be called a review, I suppose, but rather my humble opinion.

The Foreign Student, set in 1950’s, both in Tennessee and Korea, is about two fascinating people, Katherine Monroe (28), a Southern belle and a screw-up, by common view, and Chang Ahn (25), a Korean exchange student. Both loners with complicated pasts, they keep struggling with the present as well, unwillingly but stubbornly denying themselves happiness.

The narration, lapsing into the past on and off, is sometimes hard to follow, but it’s so intense it’s gripping. Whatever Choi describes—the emotional turmoil of Katherine, at 14 and at 28; the difficult adjustment of Chang at the university in the US; the horrors of his torture during the war back home; the forbidden love or love held back—you feel as if you experience the characters’ pain or exultation firsthand.

If you like literary fiction, which isn’t driven by plot but by characters’ introspection, which is psychologically complex and layered, grappling with universal dilemmas, and which is elegantly written, then you will love this stunning novel.

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