Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 30, 2017
Korean dramas were never part of Desi Lee’s life plan. Becoming student council president? Sure. Spending four brilliant years at Stanford University? Definitely. But unlike her beloved Appa (Korean for “father”), Desi has never been interested in watching Korean dramas (Kdramas) especially when they can’t get her one or twelve steps closer to her dreams. That is, until Luca Drakos transfers to Desi’s school. She’s sure her inevitable flailures (flail + failure) when faced with a cute boy will drive Luca away, but after a weekend binging Kdramas with Appa, Desi’s got a 24-step plan to win him over.
I Believe in a Thing Called Love is a novel I never expected to find, and a romantic comedy YA that surprised me from cover to cover. Having grown up watching Asian dramas, and mostly Korean ones at that, I definitely recognized the tropes that Desi encounters, but I never really thought I’d ever find a North American YA novel that would a) involve those tropes as done by Korean dramas and b) do it in a story so bright, funny, and joyful.
I found it incredibly easy to identify with Desi, different though we might be. She’s precocious and smart, and deeply focused on her future. Maureen Goo writes her with a skillful hand, and her affection and respect for the character is quite obvious. Desi’s voice inhabits the pages, which helps a lot later on when she’s making some choices that leads to secondhand embarrassment. Goo gives the reader space to understand Desi and believe in her even if she isn’t always aware of mistakes she might be making. I had a wonderful time reading about and getting to know Desi through her joys, her sadness, her selfishness, and her determination.
The 24-step plan that she creates after being inspired by Kdramas is a fun little list of tropes and inside jokes for KDrama fans. Goo pulls it off with humour and heart, poking fun at the many dramas that–for example–always have a life-threatening event that both threatens the protagonist and love interest, but also brings them closer together. Desi is new to a lot of these tropes and how/why they work for Kdramas, and that’s part of her character arc as well. She approaches them with disdain, unable to understand why her Appa would be such a huge fan, and only finds them useful when in service to something she’s trying to achieve (winning Luca over as a boyfriend). But as the plan moves forward and inevitably goes awry, Desi’s understanding of Kdramas, and the characters that populate them, also expands and deepens her relationship with her father and her own identity.
Maureen Goo fills Desi’s world with memorable best friends who clearly have an impact on Desi’s perspective, a strong cast of background characters, and of course, the boy of the hour: Luca. He’s not as well-drawn as I might have expected, but that also might be a reflection on Desi’s perceptions of him. She doesn’t really know him the way she thinks she does, not enough to understand how her Kdrama plan might be a bad idea. Ultimately, Luca doesn’t make as much of a strong impression as Desi does, but it’s Desi’s growth that’s at the core of the novel, and that trajectory was as satisfying as I could ask for.
One last note: when I first heard about I Believe in a Thing Called Love, I wondered about the kind of reaction and criticism it would garner. Asian girls in YA are few and far between, and Asian girls getting to pursue a romance on their terms in YA are even rarer. While I personally identified with and understood Desi’s complicated, polarizing attitudes, I could see the possibility of Desi getting labeled as poor representation of Asian girls in YA. I’d like to challenge that, and I think Desi likely would too, as there needs to be more room for girls like her to exist in books, flawed and unpredictable as they might be.