Jessica Jung described her first book Shine as an Easter egg hunt, promising details of the kpop industry and her own experiences hidden among the YA-tropes of her protagonist Rachel Kim’s professional and romantic pursuits. This initially created a lot of buzz with people wondering if this would be the tell-all of her infamous Girl’s Generation departure, but fans seemed disappointed in the focus on Rachel Kim’s trainee era and the general self-insert fanfiction writing quality. With Jessica’s sequel, Bright, I went into the book hesitantly expecting more of the sleuthing required to tie the story to the real-world events that Jessica experienced, but was pleasantly surprised to find the story people had hoped for all along. Bright doesn’t ask its audience to read between the lines, it seems to be the story of Jessica being kicked out of Girl’s Generation.
Where Shine Went Wrong
Before getting into how Bright improved on Shine, I want to expand on some of the criticisms of the first book, because I think that context is pretty important. Shine promised to be a tell-all, but spent all of its time on the trainee era. It had some details that people had previously speculated on, like the diets, blacklisting of groups from music shows, and secret dating lives, but didn’t really have anything that surprised seasoned-kpop-fan readers. Furthermore, the plot hit some pretty predictable YA-story beats, leaving readers feeling like it was a bit generic. I think this provided a lot of background and setup for readers who might not be die-hard kpop fans and was less written for people who were already Jessica’s fans and more for a general audience.
I think the book missed the mark here, though, since a general audience has much better examples of YA to choose from with better writing and more developed characters. The people picking up this book aren’t going to be random people interested in a kpop story. Trying to walk a middle road of accessibility and plausible deniability hurt the story here, because neither audience really gets much out of this book.
The writing style was criticized as being similar to self-insert fanfiction. Readers felt Rachel wasn’t convincing as a protagonist, things worked out a bit too easily for her, and the villain of the book, Mina, was a bit cartoonishly evil. I had mixed feelings about this criticism, because I think the ‘bad writing’ came a lot from the voice of Rachel feeling anachronistic. Rachel is supposed to be a trainee circa in the more recent modern era with references to Taylor Swift’s popular songs, but her voice feels very Amanda Bynes-2006-movie, with a ‘not-like-other-girls’ lens that more modern feminist messaging has mostly done away with in the major media we consume. However, Jessica’s trainee years would have been at about that time, and while this doesn’t excuse the number of times the young women called each other b****es in the books, it kind of makes sense that it happened in the context of their company and audience pitting the women against each other.
Shine explicitly calls out a lot of the double standards women face as kpop trainees, as well as the brutal criticism Rachel/Jessica was subjected to for just existing as a woman on a stage. The book could have had a lot more self-awareness, but as a memoir, it probably captures the atmosphere pretty well. I think some of the other criticisms in this vein (Rachel lacking flaws) didn’t strike me as much during my reread. She was pretty upfront about being bad at media and not being the best dancer. Girls Generation set the template for large kpop girl groups, so questions of ‘Can you really mess up in this way and still be allowed to debut?’ might have very different answers today than when she was a trainee.
Are They Addressed Here? What’s New?
Bright takes on a very different format compared to Shine. With the protagonist older and the plot following events that we know more or less happened, this feels like a memoir more than a kpop YA novel. The criticisms of the new novel seem more targeted at Jessica than the writing quality, though I did find that the tone would sometimes shift between addressing serious topics and then suddenly very light ones. Otherwise, the protagonist’s voice feels more authentic and it’s a much smoother read compared to its predecessor. The romance aspect of it is super cute.
Jessica spends a lot of time talking about what she’s wearing or how she puts together outfits, which establishes her interest in fashion but also makes her seem as distracted from her career as her kpop group-mates allege. There was a lot of ‘I’m so busy and barely keeping my eyes open’ hustle-culture language, but the results of that were less girlboss and more ‘Showing up in every aspect of my life unprepared.’
Although this is the story of being kicked out of Girls Generation from Jessica’s perspective, it doesn’t really paint her in a positive light. When the other girls give Jessica an ultimatum that she doesn’t take very seriously, and then they kick her out, Jessica seems to be the only one surprised by this outcome. Nevertheless, I think this was a very human, authentic story, capturing how professional relationships and friendships fell apart, not due to a big event so much as a bunch of small choices.
Bright by Jessica Jung is available for purchase now at your local independent bookstore or anywhere fine books are sold.
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