Jessica Jung’s book Shine is an #ownvoices novel in which the author shares an identity with her protagonist in more ways than one. Not only are Jessica Jung and her protagonist Rachel both Korean-American, but both moved to Korea to pursue a career in entertainment. A successful actress, singer and fashion designer, Jessica Jung has now added the title of “author” to her list of achievements with the release of her debut novel Shine. Partly influenced by her own life, Jessica Jung draws from her 13 years of experience in the industry to peel back the curtain on all the hard work and strict rules that contribute to becoming successful as a K-pop star—rules like no dating, no social media, and strict dieting.
The novel begins six years after Rachel Kim has been recruited by DB Entertainment, one of the largest companies in the field, and is training to become a K-pop star. But the world Rachel is thrust into is much more cutthroat than it originally seems. The competition between trainees for the chance to debut pushes them to aim for perfection in every way, and they don’t always play nice. As Rachel learns to balance her dreams of K-pop success with her disillusionment of the shiny entertainment world, she struggles to maintain her authentic sense of self. And when her efforts are challenged by the temptation to bend the “no dating” rule for the charming Jason Lee, the stakes become all the more clear for both Rachel and the readers following her journey. How do you maintain your sense of authentic self when you’re always being expected to perform? How do you work to assert your own values in the face of such powerful forces?
Rachel’s complex relationships with her family also show the sacrifices they have made in being supportive of her success and how their sacrifices increase the pressure she feels to debut. The complicated relationship Rachel has with her mother is strained by the need to protect her daughter from the pressures to achieve success within the industry. I appreciated Rachel’s wholesome relationship with her sister Leah and the complex development of her parent’s characters as well.
As Jessica Jung pulls back the curtain on the industry, the darker side of stardom comes into focus. For example, in exposing the double standards between how women and men are treated in the entertainment industry—such as the kinds of questions they are asked in interviews, the criticisms people make of female celebrities compared to their comments regarding male celebrities, and the extent of repercussions for female idols breaking the rules compared to male idols.
The writing itself is well-balanced with a strong sense of voice that lends itself well to Rachel’s character development, and the details and immersive imagery draw readers deeper into the story. There are some classic tropes and a sprinkle of instalove to get the romance train going, but there are also more organic moments as the novel goes on. While being entertaining and fast-paced, there are also some intensely powerful lines in the book that urge audiences to push deeper and think beyond the surface. Jessica Jung explores various experiences through the struggles that different characters face to portray diverse experiences within the industry, while also using those experiences as a lens into the larger picture.
The book is listed as the first in a series, though it would be good as a standalone novel if the ending was adjusted to match that intention. However, I will be looking out for the release of the sequel. If you are wary of books written by celebrities (and rightfully so), then this is the book to take a chance on. Shine is a read that balances a critical perspective with a fun story, and does it well, especially for a debut novel.