This ultimately uplifting tale of perseverance in the face of love and loss begins in the suburbs of an unnamed city in contemporary South Korea. Tragedy strikes when the father of sisters Nana and Sora is killed in a factory accidents. The compensation money is sequestered by their relatives, forcing the now impoverished sisters and their mother, Aeja, out of their house and their former lives.
They end up in a small flat which is shared with another family: Sunja, a single mother and her son Naghi. By now, Aeja is so broken by events that she gives up on life completely and takes to her bed, leaving her children to fend for themselves. Sunja, equally poor, takes pity on the starving sisters and feeds them herself.
The rest of the novel plays out the ramifications of this set-up. Both sisters find stable, if unexciting, office jobs. Naghi grapples with his sexuality, is rejected by the love of his life and finally finds salvation running a restaurant. Here he creates happiness by feeding other people as his mother did. Life runs smoothly until another crisis occurs: Nana becomes pregnant by a colleague and decides to keep the baby—although not the colleague.
This relatively simple plot allows author Hwang Jungeun to focus in on the intricate strands of family relationships and what makes them split or hold together. There are some well-observed sketches of uncomfortable meals with blood relatives contrasted with the more natural interaction between the sisters, Sunja and Naghi. The scene where Nana meets the parents of her baby’s father for the first time is particularly toe-curling and funny. As a result, she rejects joining their family, instead preferring to flout convention and “go on” with her own atypical version.
Food, and the sharing of it, whether that be with the living or the dead, is an important metaphor for love in the novel. Meals prepared with care are presented as life-affirming and bonding while thoughtless food, even if expensive, serves to drive the characters apart. In this way, Hwang reveals how such an everyday activity can have long-term effects:
If bones had growth rings, that period of growth filled by Naghi’s mother’s food would have left indelible marks on ours, Nana’s and mine both. In a sense, then, Naghi and Nana and I are inextricably linked by having shared a common source of sustenance, like potatoes that draw nourishment from a single root.
The novel closes on a positive note with Sora, Nana and Naghi at Sunja’s house, enjoying her homemade dumplings. As a clear demonstration that individuals can find preferable and close ties within an unorthodox social grouping, it is an inspiring challenge to the prevalent notion in many societies (not just South Korea) that only the traditional family unit is valid.