There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.
Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…
What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.
Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.
But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.
I received a digital advanced readers copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Reading Made in Korea felt like a balm to the soul. There is something so satisfying about reading a romantic contemporary that just hits all the good spots: great storytelling, a rivals-to-lovers romance that I absolutely adored and rooted for, a cast of characters that were all flawed yet earnestly human, and nestled in between a tender story about ambition, identity, and acceptance from family.
Told in alternating narratives, the story follows Korean-American teens Valerie Kwon and Wes Jung. Operating from her locker, Valerie operates a successful K-beauty business with her cousin, Charlie. When Wes Jung, the handsome new boy in school inadvertently starts a competing K-pop business that becomes Valerie’s biggest competitor, this ignites a heated competition as the two try to outsell each other – all while trying to ignore and resist the undeniable mutual attraction between the two.
There’s a lot to love in Made in Korea, but let’s start with its wonderful cast of all-Asian characters. How refreshing it is to read a young adult contemporary story where all the characters are complex, fascinating, and also feel so alive and tangible. Valerie and Wes shone brightly as main characters. The two juxtapose the other; Valerie is unapologetically ambitious, seemingly cold and calculating to her peers and yet has a huge heart when it comes to her halmeoni, while Wes is a soft, shy, and gentle soul who struggles to speak up and assert himself and doesn’t always come across the way he wants to, but comes alive when he plays his saxophone.
Underneath these two characters, who are misunderstood in different ways, the two characters share something that readers will love and get behind: their willingness to prove themselves. For Valerie, she wants to prove that her small business is a reflection of her capabilities and potential as a business person and that it isn’t the ‘cute hobby’ that her mother thinks it is by earning enough to fund a trip of a lifetime for herself and her beloved halmeoni (who I also adored). For Wes, he uses his small business as a means to fund going to music college, a career path that his parents, especially his father, disapproves of. It doesn’t stop there though: when both Valerie and Wes make an all-or-nothing bet, in which the winner takes all and has a chance at their dream – whereas the loser loses everything.
Made in Korea pulls us into a story where readers will become effortlessly invested in both Valerie and Wes’s ambitions and dreams, while also feeling utterly torn on who you want to win. (Spoiler: you can’t help but root for both! Even if they are at odds with each other! It’s conflicting!) The competition between Valerie and Wes was just so delightful to read, including how the two inadvertently recruit the same person to spy on the other.
Moreover, the romance that blooms between Valerie and Wes was wonderful. I loved the softness of their pull towards one another, balanced with the vulnerability of their romance and opening themselves up because of their ongoing competition. The connection between the two was meaningful too, especially when the two emotionally connect with one another when reflecting on their identities and sense of belonging, and how they are able to learn and grow from each other.
Nestled in-between the fluff and delights of competition are also some great moments with emotional depth. Made in Korea explores identity; not just Korean identity, but also how our ambitions can become embedded into our identities and how we see and understand ourselves framed against our successes, and our failures. Moreover, and I feel that this particular theme will resonate with many readers, Made in Korea explores the weight of our family’s expectations. Both Valerie and Wes have to grapple with their parent’s expectations of them and what is ‘best’ for them, in a way that humanises their parents (rather than a unidimensional ‘bad parent’ portrayal) but also gives Valerie and Wes agency in an empowering way.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Made in Korea is a stunning debut, with wonderful complex characters, a rivals-to-lovers romance and competition that will delight, and emotional and depthful themes that will engage and provoke thought. Above all, Made in Korea is just so much fun! My reading experience of Made in Korea was so memorable and wonderful. I cannot wait to see what stories Sarah Suk will write in the future.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Two Korean-American teens and their Korean businesses compete with one another in order to achieve their own dreams – but they fall in love amidst the competition.
Perfect for: Readers who a feel-good romantic contemporary; readers who love complex and flawed characters; readers who enjoy a balance of fluff and more somber moments.
Think twice if: You do not enjoy the miscommunication trope at all. (It is well developed though!)
Genre: young adult, romantic contemporary
Trigger/content warning: ill loved one; family conflict; hospitals.