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When We Fell Apart

A Novel

Author Soon Wiley
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ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF 2022:  Harper’s Bazaar  •  Vogue  •  Good Housekeeping  •  CrimeReads  •  BookBub  •  Veranda  •  Shondaland  •  Debutiful  •  PureWow •  and more!

A profoundly moving and suspenseful drama that untangles the complicated ties that bind families together—or break them apart—as a young Korean American man’s search for answers about his girlfriend’s mysterious death becomes a soul-searching journey into his own bi-cultural identity

When the Seoul police inform Min that his girlfriend Yu-jin has committed suicide, he’s sure it can't be true. She was successful, ambitious, happy, just on the cusp of graduating from university and claiming the future she’d always dreamed of. 
 
Min, on the other hand, born to an American father and Korean mother, has never felt quite the same certainty as Yu-jin about his life’s path. After growing up in California, where he always felt “too Korean” to fit in, he’s moved to Seoul in the hope that exploring his Korean heritage will help him find a sense of purpose. And when he meets Yu-jin, little does he know that their carefree relationship will set off a chain of events with tragic consequences for them both.
 
Devastated by Yu-jin’s death, Min throws himself into finding out why she could have secretly wanted to die. Or did she? With a controlling and powerful government official father, and a fraught friendship with her alluring and destructive roommate So-ra, Yu-jin’s life was much more complex than she chose to reveal to Min. And the more he learns about her, the more he begins to doubt he ever really knew her at all.

As Yu-jin’s story—a fraught exploration of selfhood, coming-of-age, and family expectations—collides with Min’s, the result is an engrossing page-turner that poses powerful, urgent questions about cultural identity, family bonds, secrets, and what it truly means to belong.

"Transportive and poignant." —Susie Yang
"Spellbinding." —Jamie Ford
"A young writer to watch." —Jess Walter
"Unforgettable." —Abi Daré
"The most compelling debut novel I've read in years." Alexander Chee
"Heart-stopping and exquisitely plotted." Patricia Engel
"Will stay with me for a long time."—Angie Kim
"Gorgeous." Julia Phillips

one

Min

Anything you might desire

Everyone heard it, the pop. Min knew what to do, gasping for air on the cleat-pocked grass, a semicircle of concerned teammates forming around him. Stretching the afflicted arm over his head, he slowly rotated his hand, fingertips cold, heat knifing into his lungs, and reached for the opposite shoulder, exhaling only when he felt relief, ball meeting socket again. Min couldn't help but smile. The looks on their faces.

Even the Australians had stopped playing, gawking at his dangling arm. Of all the expats who played rugby every Saturday, they were the toughest, always willing to play through a broken nose or a bruised quad, as long as it meant showing up the Brits or the Kiwis.

Min could have told them about the other times he'd dislocated his shoulder-basketball, football, a poor attempt at surfing-but he didn't. Better to leave some mystery, he thought. He'd grown used to injuries, bodily betrayal. Quick but slight, he'd taken his share of physical damage, especially in high school, where he'd insisted on playing football despite his parents' objections. He was never exceptional. Being exceptional wasn't the appeal. It was the physicality he enjoyed, the feeling of narrowly ducking a crushing hit over the middle, juking out of bounds, safe from hulking defenders intent on his destruction. More often than not, he was leveled, crushed, left blinking away stars. But there was something appealing about that, too. A part of Min liked being hit, showing he could take the pain.

From an early age Min had been drawn to competitive sports, craving their zero-sum nature, in which a distinct winner and loser emerged. He found security in having only two possible outcomes. There was no gray, no in-between. There'd been no opportunity for recreational football in Seoul, only soccer and rugby. Naturally he'd chosen rugby, prizing physicality and the risk of violence above anything else. His teammates regarded him with cautious kindness, miffed by his name and appearance. Of the expats on his team, Min was the only American, except he didn't look American, according to one of his Irish teammates, whose comments quickly garnered nods of agreement. Min only smiled. He was used to remarks like that. No matter where he went, people couldn't put their finger on him, puzzling over his ambiguous origins.

Tolerance was what Min practiced whenever he spent time with expats. It was the trade-off for getting to play rugby, getting hit. They were a lost bunch anyway, the expats. ESL teachers, ex-military, burnout backpackers, forty-year-old nothings with penchants for Asian women, these were the types of foreign men in Korea. Min considered himself different from them, somehow special, here for a reason. Biracial, Los Angeles-bred Samsung consultants were the exception in Seoul, something Min took pride in. He was here because of ancestry, because he'd never seen the country whose language he spoke, because he'd never felt wholly American, because in the snuggest kernel of his heart, he hoped to find some sense of belonging.

Arm in a makeshift sling, face badged with mud, Min was forced to watch the game's conclusion from the sideline. Afterwards, there were handshakes all around, the field chewed to a camouflage pulp, bad weather threatening on the horizon. Min zipped up his duffel bag with his good hand, hoping to beat the rain. One of the newer members of the team approached him, an amiable-looking guy named Mark.

"How's the shoulder?"

"It's felt better," Min said, wary of getting sucked into a conversation.

"We're going out for drinks. Figured you'd wanna come. Take the edge off."

Mark was new; it wasn't his fault. After rugby there were usually drinks at one of the tacky Western-style bars ubiquitous to Seoul, where teammates drank Guinness and listened to acoustic Oasis covers. Min avoided those places at all costs, and after he'd declined the first few invitations, the offer was never extended again.

"Sorry," Min said, wondering why he felt guilty. Perhaps it was Mark's politeness, the way his Canadian accent swallowed vowels. "Can't make it. I've gotta be at the office early tomorrow."

"But it's the weekend," Mark called after him.

A block away from the metro the sky opened and raindrops plummeted from the high-rise-cluttered sky. Umbrellas bloomed upwards as Min weaved his way through the lurching crowd. A jet stream of humid June air funneled down the street, slanting the rain and blurring neon signs and LED billboards scrolling ribbons with the latest financial news. Every storefront and city block called out in electric blues and pinks, offering up karaoke, libations, and fortune-telling.

This was what had mesmerized Min upon his arrival in Seoul a year and a half ago: the sheer magnitude of it all, the way it loomed over you, dwarfed you, obliterated the senses while simultaneously offering everything and anything you might desire. In awe, Min had watched cobblers toiling in their street stalls, boys fanning coals in the back alleys of restaurants, businesswomen checking their makeup by the glow of their phones. With its mirrored skyscrapers and pulsing chaos, the city itself had seemed to whisper in his ear: you're home. In recent months, though, these revelatory flashes had grown less frequent, and Min had begun to doubt his reasons for coming to Korea. Still, there were sights he'd yet to see, parts of the city he'd put off visiting that he hoped might yield that fleeting feeling.

By the time he was underground, Min was soaked. Warmth radiated from his shoulder blade as he wrung out the bottom of his T-shirt and waited for the train. Why hadn't he told Mark the truth? He could have easily said he'd made plans with Yu-jin, that they'd set aside their Sunday for each other. It was simpler this way, Min thought. He wanted to keep her separate, away from the usual strategizing and maneuvering that would ensue if the expats discovered he was dating a Korean woman. There'd be endless questions about Yu-jin: How'd they meet, did she have cute friends, was she a prude like all the other girls in Korea? A white lie had been better, Min decided as a train approached, the plastic barrier between the platform and the track humming to life. He'd extricated himself without having to wear the mask of civility for too long. Still, it hadn't saved him from getting wet.

two

Yu-jin

Leaving it all behind

Focused, driven, ambitious, obsessed: I was all those things in high school. None of this set me apart from my classmates. It didn't make me special. We knew what was at stake. Our eyes were on the prize, unflinching: gaining admittance to a university in Seoul. For those with even loftier goals, SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University) was the ultimate-admittance to any one of the three instantaneously setting you on a course for financial, social, and marital success. College wasn't just the next logical step. It was the foundation upon which your entire adult life was built. It was everything. Slip up on a test at school, mess around during night classes at hagwon, or, worst of all, bomb the College Scholastic Ability Test-there went your future, all your hopes and dreams gone in an instant, every future self you'd ever imagined, vanished.

I had plans of my own. Or, I should say, my family had made plans for me: Ewha Womans University. It was my mother's alma mater, one of Seoul's most prestigious schools, and an all-girls one at that, something my father particularly approved of.

But more than the promise of Ewha's rigorous education, more than its vaunted postgraduation connections, more than the alluring prospect of escaping my parents' house, more than anything, I wanted to be in Seoul, in the center of it all. As long as I was there, somewhere in that city, I knew everything would work itself out.

I didn't hate growing up in Gyeryong. It's not like it was dangerous; there was no crime or drugs. That might have at least made it a little interesting. Of course there were good schools, clean parks, a nice shopping mall, but even at an early age, I had the sneaking suspicion that the tiny city I inhabited was boring, prefabricated. Like most of the kids I went to school with, my family had moved to Gyeryong because of the military. It seemed like everyone's father, including my own, worked at the army, navy, or air force headquarters based around the city.

Boxcar administrative buildings, dull government workers in identical gray suits, military officials with matching buzz cuts-this was all I ever saw. Even the housewives wore the same dresses and blouses, never deviating from their neutral tones of beige, black, and pale blue. Uniformity engulfed the city, smoothed its rough patches, varnished it to a perfect sheen. With every restaurant serving the same three dishes, the movie theater only showing two movies at a time, and the norebangs updating their music catalogues once a year, I had little trouble focusing on my studies. Unimpeachable grades and a top score on the CSAT were the two goals that saved me from boredom.

I yearned for a place with grit and edge, a place with a pulse, something boiling beneath the surface. And I was almost there. I could feel it in my aching fingertips as I scribbled class notes. I could taste it in the cheap curry donkatsu I scarfed down between day and night classes. In three weeks, I'd take the exam and be set on my track, hurtling toward that magnificent megacity, overflowing with chaos and life. It was all I ever talked about with my friends: Seoul. Home to ambitious students, aspiring artists, high fashion models, and brilliant CEOs, it was everything we didn't have, everything we craved. I'd been to Seoul twice with my parents. We'd toured the palaces and seen the sights. I remember being astounded by the sea of pedestrians emerging from the metro, the cacophony of blaring horns during rush hour. There was an energy, a marvelous desperation to the way these people lived their lives. From then on, I knew I had to come back. And as I sat in the dingy classroom of my hagwon, going over one multiple-choice question after another, it took all my self-restraint and focus to sit and study. I was so close. So close to getting out, leaving it all behind.

Sometimes my friends would talk about visiting each other once we were all in college. In this scenario we'd all gotten into our top choices in Seoul. It was an indulgence, this fantasy. Except it wasn't a fantasy for me; it was a nightmare. I wanted a clean slate, an impossibility with my high school friends around. I wanted the chance to reinvent myself, start anew. Secretly, I hoped we'd never see each other again after graduation day. I was embarrassed by our dialects, our taste in music and clothes. Everything about us screamed rural and backwards; everyone would know we didn't belong. For months, standing before the bathroom mirror, I'd practiced my Seoul dialect, merging my vowels, committing each unique intonation to memory. Still, I contributed to their stories, played the game. I said how exciting it would all be, visiting dorms and meeting roommates. But each night, kneeling beside my bed, hands clenched, I prayed none of them would get into Ewha. I prayed none of them would set foot in Seoul.

The fall had been a sprint to the finish, the placement exam looming like a dark, treacherous thunderhead. I charged forward, into the fray, fearlessly. Some fell by the wayside-depression, eating disorders, mystery illnesses-but not me. My eye was on the prize. A high score in November would guarantee my acceptance in January. Some of my classmates opted to take the test after graduation, so they'd have more time to study; others took their chances with the Susi process, avoiding the CSAT entirely, pinning their hopes instead on transcripts, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities. I wasn't one of those students. I didn't need extra time to study. I didn't need to take the easy way up.

The day before the examination my father took me out for ice cream. I couldn't remember the last time we'd done something together, just the two of us. He was always working, gone before the sun rose, sometimes not making it home at all, opting to sleep in the dorms at army headquarters. Like a ghost, he came and went, his presence only detectable from the half-empty bowl of fried rice on the kitchen counter, his smudged fingerprints on the doorknob from the morning newspaper.

It was a typical November day: gray, cold with a bite. We sat in the window of a cute diner-style parlor, eating offensively large chocolate sundaes. It was my father's favorite place in Gyeryong. He said it reminded him of America-the good parts of it anyway-drive-ins, milkshakes, roller-girls.

I couldn't help but smile and be happy. Despite my age, he still delighted in theatrical gestures of appreciation and celebration. It was his way: an enormous inflatable bouncy castle for my elementary school graduation party, a platinum bracelet for my sixteenth birthday, a new Mercedes for my mother's fortieth. He cared a great deal about appearances, was proud he could give those gifts.

He sat across from me, jaw square, dark brown eyes betraying nothing. My mother always joked that he should play poker for a living. "With that face," she'd say, "we'd be rich by now."

But my father never gambled. "For degenerates and fools," he'd said once, when we'd passed some elderly men comparing lottery tickets on the street. "There's no such thing as luck. You remember that. There's only hard work. Everything that comes to you is meant for you. You deserve everything-good or bad."

My mother was right. Nothing surprised him. When he did lose his temper, it was a quiet fury, churning beneath the surface until it ruptured. As a child I'd learned to read the silence, the subtle creases on his brow. Still, I wasn't always successful, incurring his wrath if my grades dipped or I talked back.

That didn't happen anymore, not since I'd understood what my parents expected of me.

"I can't tell you how proud I am," he said that day in the diner, taking my hand in his. "You know that, right? Me and your mother. We see the hard work you've been putting in. It's all going to pay off."

His phone vibrated on the table. He eyed it wearily. I was surprised when he ignored the call, smiling instead. As Chief of Strategic Planning-a title I'd memorized because I was proud-he was never without his phone. He was forever ducking out, holding hushed conversations in the bedroom. But this phone call could wait. In that moment I could feel it: paid attention to, loved. This is a special day, an important day, for both of us, he was saying.

"Wiley is a master of structure and pacing, with a gift for ending chapters at their most gripping moments, which gives this quiet, mournful novel the page-turning quality of a thriller. Yet what makes When We Fell Apart such a must-read is its portrayal of the extraordinary pressure faced by young people in Korea to conform and perform."
The Washington Post

"In his suspenseful debut . . . Soon Wiley navigates two different points of view on a young woman’s mysterious suicide . . . That we know her tragic conclusion doesn’t make [Yu-jin's] past any less urgent than Min’s quest in the present. This is a story about young people constrained in their self-development, one by his own internal pressures, the other by social expectations that are at odds with her true desires." The New York Times Book Review

"Death arrives quickly and triggers a deepening mystery in When We Fell Apart, the celebrated debut novel of Soon Wiley. . . . Wiley tells parallel stories in alternating, brief chapters—Min's and Yu-jin's, one a roller-coaster of suspense and suspicion, the other a gradual awakening . . . But there are secrets held and kept, secrets that define and deepen characters. There are moments here that beg for the movie rights to be signed: a father-daughter fishing trip where lessons are taught gently but must be followed rigidly; a moment on a dormant driving range when a woman claims her voice for the first time; and a betrayal that leads to one character's destruction. . . . [And] there is another character, one that Wiley lays out just as carefully as he does his young lovers. It is Korea, a nation that has seen conquerors bent on its destruction, on erasing its ambitions."
USA Today


When We Fell Apart is a marvelous debut novel, moving and suspenseful, a reminder that the greatest mysteries are those of being and belonging. Soon Wiley is a young writer to watch."
—Jess Walter, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins and The Cold Millions

"A lyrical exposition on what it’s like to be biracial, with one foot firmly planted in two distinct worlds, never completely fitting in, but capable of seeing what others do not. A lonely, heartbreaking, spellbinding story of love, self-discovery, and belonging."
—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

“Propulsive and deeply felt, Soon Wiley's phenomenal debut When We Fell Apart takes on the friction between family bonds, cultural expectations, and personal desires in a way that feels both urgent and intensely real. Even as I raced through the pages to find out what happened to Yu-jin, for me the true heart of the book was Min, and his search for a sense of belonging that neither America nor Korea is quite able to offer him. His story is truly unforgettable.”
—Abi Daré, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl with the Louding Voice

"Melancholic, atmospheric, and consistently surprising. Like Norwegian Wood, there is a minor key running through this love story played out on the frenetic and lonely streets of Seoul. When We Fell Apart is a transportive and poignant debut."
—Susie Yang, New York Times bestselling author of White Ivy

When We Fell Apart explores the tender and chaotic intersections of culture, community, and the search for self. Rich with philosophical nuance, heart-stopping, and exquisitely plotted, this is a novel to get lost in.”
—Patricia Engel, New York Times bestselling author of Infinite Country

“In this gorgeous debut, Soon Wiley uncovers what secrets kept two lovers from each other before they were finally separated by death. When We Fell Apart explores youth, sexuality, and the freedom to choose your own destiny in a world that keeps insisting on who you should be and how you should love.”
—Julia Phillips, author of the National Book Award finalist and national bestseller Disappearing Earth

"When We Fell Apart is the most compelling debut novel I've read in years. At first a seemingly quiet novel of love and the difficulty in knowing yourself and others, you soon find yourself inside of a masterful plot that seems to move in two directions at the same time, towards the inexorable, stunning endingunforgettable."
—Alexander Chee, bestselling author of The Queen of the Night and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

“In this gorgeous, poignant meditation on identity, love, and desire, Soon Wiley illuminates the liminal state of being biracial, of belonging but not, of desperately wanting the world to let you be as you are. When We Fell Apart will stay with me for a long time."
—Angie Kim, bestselling author of Miracle Creek

“A ravishing neo-noir about the search for identity in modern-day Seoul, When We Fell Apart dazzles like neon on a rainy night. In lush, perfectly-tuned prose, Soon Wiley leads readers around dark corners and into the heart of a kaleidoscopic city, unraveling the mystery of one young woman's tragic death through the eyes of a haunted outsider. This is a magical debut.”
—Amy Gentry, bestselling author of Good as Gone and Bad Habits

"A powerful novel that delves unflinchingly into the deeply timely question of what it means to belong to more than one culture."
—Vogue, "Best Books of 2022 So Far"

“This compelling, propulsive novel is as complex as the characters it follows.”
Good Housekeeping, "Best and Most Anticipated Books of 2022 (So Far)"

“Wiley’s tale is a knockout, its assured narrative ebbing and flowing with grace while painting a haunting and anguished portrait of youth in all its quiet desperation.”
Booklist (STARRED REVIEW)

"Wiley’s debut novel is poignant and powerful and will leave readers questioning who is and isn't awarded the freedom to be their truest self."
Shondaland, "Best Books for April 2022"

"In this moody noir set in Seoul, a Korean-American expat goes searching for answers when the university student he’s been hooking up with dies by suicide."
CrimeReads, "10 New Novels You Should Read This Month"

"In Soon Wiley’s debut novel, When We Fell Apart, two twenty-somethings search for belonging in the city of Seoul, and their lives are irrevocably changed in the process. This book weaves through emotional twists and turns, fraught with complicated tensions involving familial duty, societal judgment, and cultural and sexual identity."
Asia Pacific Arts


"Searing . . . [Wiley] brilliantly and achingly confronts all the ways his characters struggle to connect and to be whole. . . . That search for ethnic, historic, familial, and sexual identities, seemingly so elusive for adults coming of age, propels Wiley's untethered characters in diverse directions. Some are delusional; some, liberating; and one proves tragically fatal."
BookDragon, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

"At once a noir-like mystery and a deeply compelling coming-of-age story that poignantly examines agency, expectations, and perspective, When We Fell Apart is a beautiful novel perfect for readers of Everything I Never Told You, What's Left of Me is Yours, and Memorial."
BookReporter

"A propulsive book about a young man determined to discover the truth after his girlfriend seemingly commits suicide. Set in Korea, Wiley’s taut page-turner also offers insight into tension of growing up biracial and never feeling like you truly belong in either culture."
Debutiful, “12 Can’t Miss Debut Books You Should Read This April”

“Balancing perfectly on the line that divides literary work from suspenseful drama, Soon Wiley’s When We Fell Apart skillfully inhabits both genres.”
Marginalia

"In writing When We Fell Apart, notable new novelist Soon Wiley has masterfully woven a story where his two protagonists come from very different experiences and places, yet share the struggle to carve out their own identities. Set in modern-day Seoul, it’s also a love letter to Korea itself, but one that doesn’t pull any punches."
Asian America: The Ken Fong Podcast

“When We Fell Apart is so expertly plotted and paced, told in prose so lean and lucid that it’s hard to believe that this book in my hands is a first novel. It’s thrilling, deeply human, heartbreaking. It’s equal parts mystery and exploration of identity and duality. What isn’t hard to believe is that Soon Wiley is writer we’ll be hearing from for years to come."
—Michael Knight, author of Eveningland

"A love story, arresting mystery, and global novel of identity in one, When We Fell Apart takes us on a captivating journey through the bright lights and dark byways of modern Seoul, exploring what it means—and what it costs—to be ourselves and live freely. With elegance, sophistication, and verve, Soon Wiley delivers a beautiful debut novel."
—Jack Wang, award-winning author of We Two Alone


"With rich prose, [Soon Wiley] deftly captures the voices of Min and Yu-jin, as they grapple with love and loss, identity, and obligation. Suspenseful, layered, vivid, and true, this gorgeous novel left me gutted."
—Nicole Lundrigan, author of Hideaway and An Unthinkable Thing


"A story of loyalty, identity, obsession, and fear, When We Fell Apart is complex, smart, and hold-your-breath cinematic. Wiley has pulled off a stunning feat of insightful, unflinching storytelling, exploring the ways we strive and hope, succeed and fail—both as people and societies, and the damage we can all do with even the best of intentions."
—Grace O'Connell, author of Be Ready for the Lightning

"A complex, driving novel about the trap of belonging and the comfort of deception, Soon Wiley's When We Fell Apart is about all the different selves we present to each other."
—Naben Ruthnum, author of A Hero of Our Time

When We Fell Apart is a masterful debut novel propelled by yearning, edge-of-your seat suspense, and characters who will break your heart. Soon Wiley channels the crackling energy of Seoul, injecting heat, noise, and sultry desire on every page. If this book does not compel you to figure out what makes you feel alive and follow your passion wherever it leads, nothing will.”
—Josh Rolnick, award-winning author of Pulp and Paper

“The business of being yourself is anything but simple, and Wiley’s powerful novel knows it.”
—Peter Behrens, award-winning author of Carry Me

“When We Fell Apart is an absolutely mesmerizing and important novel, delving into all sorts of issues that everyone will find relatable. This book is a page-turner, propelling the reader toward the conclusion, which is both surprising and perfectly rendered when reached. A bravado debut.”
—Don Lee, award-winning author of Yellow and Country of Origin

"Set in Seoul, this brooding literary thriller explores the complicated relationship between Yu-jin, a young South Korean woman from a powerful family, and Min, a biracial Korean American who feels as out of place in his mother’s birth country as he did in his native United States. Chapters alternate between Min and Yu-jin’s perspectives to weave a story about the struggle to fit in while remaining true to oneself."
Poets & Writers

"There are parts of ourselves that only we know—parts that we don’t know how to reveal, even to those we spend the most time with, even to those who love us most. And then there are parts of ourselves that we haven’t yet discovered. When We Fell Apart, Soon Wiley’s debut novel, explores how these parts come to be known, and how keeping them hidden can be the undoing of relationships and lives."
Mochi Magazine

“Fueled by deep feeling and a powerful sense of place, the book gains real emotional traction in capturing the despair of striving individuals pushed to the margins by conformist norms . . . A dark coming-of-age tale in the form of a mystery.”
Kirkus Reviews
© Rachel EH Photography
A native of Nyack, New York, SOON WILEY received his BA in English and Philosophy from Connecticut College. He holds an MFA from Wichita State University and is currently pursuing an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned him fellowships at Brush Creek Residency for the Arts in Wyoming and CAMAC–Centre d’art in France. He currently teaches English at Sidwell Friends in Washington, DC, where he resides with his wife and their two cats. View titles by Soon Wiley

About

ONE OF THE MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF 2022:  Harper’s Bazaar  •  Vogue  •  Good Housekeeping  •  CrimeReads  •  BookBub  •  Veranda  •  Shondaland  •  Debutiful  •  PureWow •  and more!

A profoundly moving and suspenseful drama that untangles the complicated ties that bind families together—or break them apart—as a young Korean American man’s search for answers about his girlfriend’s mysterious death becomes a soul-searching journey into his own bi-cultural identity

When the Seoul police inform Min that his girlfriend Yu-jin has committed suicide, he’s sure it can't be true. She was successful, ambitious, happy, just on the cusp of graduating from university and claiming the future she’d always dreamed of. 
 
Min, on the other hand, born to an American father and Korean mother, has never felt quite the same certainty as Yu-jin about his life’s path. After growing up in California, where he always felt “too Korean” to fit in, he’s moved to Seoul in the hope that exploring his Korean heritage will help him find a sense of purpose. And when he meets Yu-jin, little does he know that their carefree relationship will set off a chain of events with tragic consequences for them both.
 
Devastated by Yu-jin’s death, Min throws himself into finding out why she could have secretly wanted to die. Or did she? With a controlling and powerful government official father, and a fraught friendship with her alluring and destructive roommate So-ra, Yu-jin’s life was much more complex than she chose to reveal to Min. And the more he learns about her, the more he begins to doubt he ever really knew her at all.

As Yu-jin’s story—a fraught exploration of selfhood, coming-of-age, and family expectations—collides with Min’s, the result is an engrossing page-turner that poses powerful, urgent questions about cultural identity, family bonds, secrets, and what it truly means to belong.

"Transportive and poignant." —Susie Yang
"Spellbinding." —Jamie Ford
"A young writer to watch." —Jess Walter
"Unforgettable." —Abi Daré
"The most compelling debut novel I've read in years." Alexander Chee
"Heart-stopping and exquisitely plotted." Patricia Engel
"Will stay with me for a long time."—Angie Kim
"Gorgeous." Julia Phillips

Excerpt

one

Min

Anything you might desire

Everyone heard it, the pop. Min knew what to do, gasping for air on the cleat-pocked grass, a semicircle of concerned teammates forming around him. Stretching the afflicted arm over his head, he slowly rotated his hand, fingertips cold, heat knifing into his lungs, and reached for the opposite shoulder, exhaling only when he felt relief, ball meeting socket again. Min couldn't help but smile. The looks on their faces.

Even the Australians had stopped playing, gawking at his dangling arm. Of all the expats who played rugby every Saturday, they were the toughest, always willing to play through a broken nose or a bruised quad, as long as it meant showing up the Brits or the Kiwis.

Min could have told them about the other times he'd dislocated his shoulder-basketball, football, a poor attempt at surfing-but he didn't. Better to leave some mystery, he thought. He'd grown used to injuries, bodily betrayal. Quick but slight, he'd taken his share of physical damage, especially in high school, where he'd insisted on playing football despite his parents' objections. He was never exceptional. Being exceptional wasn't the appeal. It was the physicality he enjoyed, the feeling of narrowly ducking a crushing hit over the middle, juking out of bounds, safe from hulking defenders intent on his destruction. More often than not, he was leveled, crushed, left blinking away stars. But there was something appealing about that, too. A part of Min liked being hit, showing he could take the pain.

From an early age Min had been drawn to competitive sports, craving their zero-sum nature, in which a distinct winner and loser emerged. He found security in having only two possible outcomes. There was no gray, no in-between. There'd been no opportunity for recreational football in Seoul, only soccer and rugby. Naturally he'd chosen rugby, prizing physicality and the risk of violence above anything else. His teammates regarded him with cautious kindness, miffed by his name and appearance. Of the expats on his team, Min was the only American, except he didn't look American, according to one of his Irish teammates, whose comments quickly garnered nods of agreement. Min only smiled. He was used to remarks like that. No matter where he went, people couldn't put their finger on him, puzzling over his ambiguous origins.

Tolerance was what Min practiced whenever he spent time with expats. It was the trade-off for getting to play rugby, getting hit. They were a lost bunch anyway, the expats. ESL teachers, ex-military, burnout backpackers, forty-year-old nothings with penchants for Asian women, these were the types of foreign men in Korea. Min considered himself different from them, somehow special, here for a reason. Biracial, Los Angeles-bred Samsung consultants were the exception in Seoul, something Min took pride in. He was here because of ancestry, because he'd never seen the country whose language he spoke, because he'd never felt wholly American, because in the snuggest kernel of his heart, he hoped to find some sense of belonging.

Arm in a makeshift sling, face badged with mud, Min was forced to watch the game's conclusion from the sideline. Afterwards, there were handshakes all around, the field chewed to a camouflage pulp, bad weather threatening on the horizon. Min zipped up his duffel bag with his good hand, hoping to beat the rain. One of the newer members of the team approached him, an amiable-looking guy named Mark.

"How's the shoulder?"

"It's felt better," Min said, wary of getting sucked into a conversation.

"We're going out for drinks. Figured you'd wanna come. Take the edge off."

Mark was new; it wasn't his fault. After rugby there were usually drinks at one of the tacky Western-style bars ubiquitous to Seoul, where teammates drank Guinness and listened to acoustic Oasis covers. Min avoided those places at all costs, and after he'd declined the first few invitations, the offer was never extended again.

"Sorry," Min said, wondering why he felt guilty. Perhaps it was Mark's politeness, the way his Canadian accent swallowed vowels. "Can't make it. I've gotta be at the office early tomorrow."

"But it's the weekend," Mark called after him.

A block away from the metro the sky opened and raindrops plummeted from the high-rise-cluttered sky. Umbrellas bloomed upwards as Min weaved his way through the lurching crowd. A jet stream of humid June air funneled down the street, slanting the rain and blurring neon signs and LED billboards scrolling ribbons with the latest financial news. Every storefront and city block called out in electric blues and pinks, offering up karaoke, libations, and fortune-telling.

This was what had mesmerized Min upon his arrival in Seoul a year and a half ago: the sheer magnitude of it all, the way it loomed over you, dwarfed you, obliterated the senses while simultaneously offering everything and anything you might desire. In awe, Min had watched cobblers toiling in their street stalls, boys fanning coals in the back alleys of restaurants, businesswomen checking their makeup by the glow of their phones. With its mirrored skyscrapers and pulsing chaos, the city itself had seemed to whisper in his ear: you're home. In recent months, though, these revelatory flashes had grown less frequent, and Min had begun to doubt his reasons for coming to Korea. Still, there were sights he'd yet to see, parts of the city he'd put off visiting that he hoped might yield that fleeting feeling.

By the time he was underground, Min was soaked. Warmth radiated from his shoulder blade as he wrung out the bottom of his T-shirt and waited for the train. Why hadn't he told Mark the truth? He could have easily said he'd made plans with Yu-jin, that they'd set aside their Sunday for each other. It was simpler this way, Min thought. He wanted to keep her separate, away from the usual strategizing and maneuvering that would ensue if the expats discovered he was dating a Korean woman. There'd be endless questions about Yu-jin: How'd they meet, did she have cute friends, was she a prude like all the other girls in Korea? A white lie had been better, Min decided as a train approached, the plastic barrier between the platform and the track humming to life. He'd extricated himself without having to wear the mask of civility for too long. Still, it hadn't saved him from getting wet.

two

Yu-jin

Leaving it all behind

Focused, driven, ambitious, obsessed: I was all those things in high school. None of this set me apart from my classmates. It didn't make me special. We knew what was at stake. Our eyes were on the prize, unflinching: gaining admittance to a university in Seoul. For those with even loftier goals, SKY (Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University) was the ultimate-admittance to any one of the three instantaneously setting you on a course for financial, social, and marital success. College wasn't just the next logical step. It was the foundation upon which your entire adult life was built. It was everything. Slip up on a test at school, mess around during night classes at hagwon, or, worst of all, bomb the College Scholastic Ability Test-there went your future, all your hopes and dreams gone in an instant, every future self you'd ever imagined, vanished.

I had plans of my own. Or, I should say, my family had made plans for me: Ewha Womans University. It was my mother's alma mater, one of Seoul's most prestigious schools, and an all-girls one at that, something my father particularly approved of.

But more than the promise of Ewha's rigorous education, more than its vaunted postgraduation connections, more than the alluring prospect of escaping my parents' house, more than anything, I wanted to be in Seoul, in the center of it all. As long as I was there, somewhere in that city, I knew everything would work itself out.

I didn't hate growing up in Gyeryong. It's not like it was dangerous; there was no crime or drugs. That might have at least made it a little interesting. Of course there were good schools, clean parks, a nice shopping mall, but even at an early age, I had the sneaking suspicion that the tiny city I inhabited was boring, prefabricated. Like most of the kids I went to school with, my family had moved to Gyeryong because of the military. It seemed like everyone's father, including my own, worked at the army, navy, or air force headquarters based around the city.

Boxcar administrative buildings, dull government workers in identical gray suits, military officials with matching buzz cuts-this was all I ever saw. Even the housewives wore the same dresses and blouses, never deviating from their neutral tones of beige, black, and pale blue. Uniformity engulfed the city, smoothed its rough patches, varnished it to a perfect sheen. With every restaurant serving the same three dishes, the movie theater only showing two movies at a time, and the norebangs updating their music catalogues once a year, I had little trouble focusing on my studies. Unimpeachable grades and a top score on the CSAT were the two goals that saved me from boredom.

I yearned for a place with grit and edge, a place with a pulse, something boiling beneath the surface. And I was almost there. I could feel it in my aching fingertips as I scribbled class notes. I could taste it in the cheap curry donkatsu I scarfed down between day and night classes. In three weeks, I'd take the exam and be set on my track, hurtling toward that magnificent megacity, overflowing with chaos and life. It was all I ever talked about with my friends: Seoul. Home to ambitious students, aspiring artists, high fashion models, and brilliant CEOs, it was everything we didn't have, everything we craved. I'd been to Seoul twice with my parents. We'd toured the palaces and seen the sights. I remember being astounded by the sea of pedestrians emerging from the metro, the cacophony of blaring horns during rush hour. There was an energy, a marvelous desperation to the way these people lived their lives. From then on, I knew I had to come back. And as I sat in the dingy classroom of my hagwon, going over one multiple-choice question after another, it took all my self-restraint and focus to sit and study. I was so close. So close to getting out, leaving it all behind.

Sometimes my friends would talk about visiting each other once we were all in college. In this scenario we'd all gotten into our top choices in Seoul. It was an indulgence, this fantasy. Except it wasn't a fantasy for me; it was a nightmare. I wanted a clean slate, an impossibility with my high school friends around. I wanted the chance to reinvent myself, start anew. Secretly, I hoped we'd never see each other again after graduation day. I was embarrassed by our dialects, our taste in music and clothes. Everything about us screamed rural and backwards; everyone would know we didn't belong. For months, standing before the bathroom mirror, I'd practiced my Seoul dialect, merging my vowels, committing each unique intonation to memory. Still, I contributed to their stories, played the game. I said how exciting it would all be, visiting dorms and meeting roommates. But each night, kneeling beside my bed, hands clenched, I prayed none of them would get into Ewha. I prayed none of them would set foot in Seoul.

The fall had been a sprint to the finish, the placement exam looming like a dark, treacherous thunderhead. I charged forward, into the fray, fearlessly. Some fell by the wayside-depression, eating disorders, mystery illnesses-but not me. My eye was on the prize. A high score in November would guarantee my acceptance in January. Some of my classmates opted to take the test after graduation, so they'd have more time to study; others took their chances with the Susi process, avoiding the CSAT entirely, pinning their hopes instead on transcripts, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities. I wasn't one of those students. I didn't need extra time to study. I didn't need to take the easy way up.

The day before the examination my father took me out for ice cream. I couldn't remember the last time we'd done something together, just the two of us. He was always working, gone before the sun rose, sometimes not making it home at all, opting to sleep in the dorms at army headquarters. Like a ghost, he came and went, his presence only detectable from the half-empty bowl of fried rice on the kitchen counter, his smudged fingerprints on the doorknob from the morning newspaper.

It was a typical November day: gray, cold with a bite. We sat in the window of a cute diner-style parlor, eating offensively large chocolate sundaes. It was my father's favorite place in Gyeryong. He said it reminded him of America-the good parts of it anyway-drive-ins, milkshakes, roller-girls.

I couldn't help but smile and be happy. Despite my age, he still delighted in theatrical gestures of appreciation and celebration. It was his way: an enormous inflatable bouncy castle for my elementary school graduation party, a platinum bracelet for my sixteenth birthday, a new Mercedes for my mother's fortieth. He cared a great deal about appearances, was proud he could give those gifts.

He sat across from me, jaw square, dark brown eyes betraying nothing. My mother always joked that he should play poker for a living. "With that face," she'd say, "we'd be rich by now."

But my father never gambled. "For degenerates and fools," he'd said once, when we'd passed some elderly men comparing lottery tickets on the street. "There's no such thing as luck. You remember that. There's only hard work. Everything that comes to you is meant for you. You deserve everything-good or bad."

My mother was right. Nothing surprised him. When he did lose his temper, it was a quiet fury, churning beneath the surface until it ruptured. As a child I'd learned to read the silence, the subtle creases on his brow. Still, I wasn't always successful, incurring his wrath if my grades dipped or I talked back.

That didn't happen anymore, not since I'd understood what my parents expected of me.

"I can't tell you how proud I am," he said that day in the diner, taking my hand in his. "You know that, right? Me and your mother. We see the hard work you've been putting in. It's all going to pay off."

His phone vibrated on the table. He eyed it wearily. I was surprised when he ignored the call, smiling instead. As Chief of Strategic Planning-a title I'd memorized because I was proud-he was never without his phone. He was forever ducking out, holding hushed conversations in the bedroom. But this phone call could wait. In that moment I could feel it: paid attention to, loved. This is a special day, an important day, for both of us, he was saying.

Praise

"Wiley is a master of structure and pacing, with a gift for ending chapters at their most gripping moments, which gives this quiet, mournful novel the page-turning quality of a thriller. Yet what makes When We Fell Apart such a must-read is its portrayal of the extraordinary pressure faced by young people in Korea to conform and perform."
The Washington Post

"In his suspenseful debut . . . Soon Wiley navigates two different points of view on a young woman’s mysterious suicide . . . That we know her tragic conclusion doesn’t make [Yu-jin's] past any less urgent than Min’s quest in the present. This is a story about young people constrained in their self-development, one by his own internal pressures, the other by social expectations that are at odds with her true desires." The New York Times Book Review

"Death arrives quickly and triggers a deepening mystery in When We Fell Apart, the celebrated debut novel of Soon Wiley. . . . Wiley tells parallel stories in alternating, brief chapters—Min's and Yu-jin's, one a roller-coaster of suspense and suspicion, the other a gradual awakening . . . But there are secrets held and kept, secrets that define and deepen characters. There are moments here that beg for the movie rights to be signed: a father-daughter fishing trip where lessons are taught gently but must be followed rigidly; a moment on a dormant driving range when a woman claims her voice for the first time; and a betrayal that leads to one character's destruction. . . . [And] there is another character, one that Wiley lays out just as carefully as he does his young lovers. It is Korea, a nation that has seen conquerors bent on its destruction, on erasing its ambitions."
USA Today


When We Fell Apart is a marvelous debut novel, moving and suspenseful, a reminder that the greatest mysteries are those of being and belonging. Soon Wiley is a young writer to watch."
—Jess Walter, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Ruins and The Cold Millions

"A lyrical exposition on what it’s like to be biracial, with one foot firmly planted in two distinct worlds, never completely fitting in, but capable of seeing what others do not. A lonely, heartbreaking, spellbinding story of love, self-discovery, and belonging."
—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

“Propulsive and deeply felt, Soon Wiley's phenomenal debut When We Fell Apart takes on the friction between family bonds, cultural expectations, and personal desires in a way that feels both urgent and intensely real. Even as I raced through the pages to find out what happened to Yu-jin, for me the true heart of the book was Min, and his search for a sense of belonging that neither America nor Korea is quite able to offer him. His story is truly unforgettable.”
—Abi Daré, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl with the Louding Voice

"Melancholic, atmospheric, and consistently surprising. Like Norwegian Wood, there is a minor key running through this love story played out on the frenetic and lonely streets of Seoul. When We Fell Apart is a transportive and poignant debut."
—Susie Yang, New York Times bestselling author of White Ivy

When We Fell Apart explores the tender and chaotic intersections of culture, community, and the search for self. Rich with philosophical nuance, heart-stopping, and exquisitely plotted, this is a novel to get lost in.”
—Patricia Engel, New York Times bestselling author of Infinite Country

“In this gorgeous debut, Soon Wiley uncovers what secrets kept two lovers from each other before they were finally separated by death. When We Fell Apart explores youth, sexuality, and the freedom to choose your own destiny in a world that keeps insisting on who you should be and how you should love.”
—Julia Phillips, author of the National Book Award finalist and national bestseller Disappearing Earth

"When We Fell Apart is the most compelling debut novel I've read in years. At first a seemingly quiet novel of love and the difficulty in knowing yourself and others, you soon find yourself inside of a masterful plot that seems to move in two directions at the same time, towards the inexorable, stunning endingunforgettable."
—Alexander Chee, bestselling author of The Queen of the Night and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

“In this gorgeous, poignant meditation on identity, love, and desire, Soon Wiley illuminates the liminal state of being biracial, of belonging but not, of desperately wanting the world to let you be as you are. When We Fell Apart will stay with me for a long time."
—Angie Kim, bestselling author of Miracle Creek

“A ravishing neo-noir about the search for identity in modern-day Seoul, When We Fell Apart dazzles like neon on a rainy night. In lush, perfectly-tuned prose, Soon Wiley leads readers around dark corners and into the heart of a kaleidoscopic city, unraveling the mystery of one young woman's tragic death through the eyes of a haunted outsider. This is a magical debut.”
—Amy Gentry, bestselling author of Good as Gone and Bad Habits

"A powerful novel that delves unflinchingly into the deeply timely question of what it means to belong to more than one culture."
—Vogue, "Best Books of 2022 So Far"

“This compelling, propulsive novel is as complex as the characters it follows.”
Good Housekeeping, "Best and Most Anticipated Books of 2022 (So Far)"

“Wiley’s tale is a knockout, its assured narrative ebbing and flowing with grace while painting a haunting and anguished portrait of youth in all its quiet desperation.”
Booklist (STARRED REVIEW)

"Wiley’s debut novel is poignant and powerful and will leave readers questioning who is and isn't awarded the freedom to be their truest self."
Shondaland, "Best Books for April 2022"

"In this moody noir set in Seoul, a Korean-American expat goes searching for answers when the university student he’s been hooking up with dies by suicide."
CrimeReads, "10 New Novels You Should Read This Month"

"In Soon Wiley’s debut novel, When We Fell Apart, two twenty-somethings search for belonging in the city of Seoul, and their lives are irrevocably changed in the process. This book weaves through emotional twists and turns, fraught with complicated tensions involving familial duty, societal judgment, and cultural and sexual identity."
Asia Pacific Arts


"Searing . . . [Wiley] brilliantly and achingly confronts all the ways his characters struggle to connect and to be whole. . . . That search for ethnic, historic, familial, and sexual identities, seemingly so elusive for adults coming of age, propels Wiley's untethered characters in diverse directions. Some are delusional; some, liberating; and one proves tragically fatal."
BookDragon, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

"At once a noir-like mystery and a deeply compelling coming-of-age story that poignantly examines agency, expectations, and perspective, When We Fell Apart is a beautiful novel perfect for readers of Everything I Never Told You, What's Left of Me is Yours, and Memorial."
BookReporter

"A propulsive book about a young man determined to discover the truth after his girlfriend seemingly commits suicide. Set in Korea, Wiley’s taut page-turner also offers insight into tension of growing up biracial and never feeling like you truly belong in either culture."
Debutiful, “12 Can’t Miss Debut Books You Should Read This April”

“Balancing perfectly on the line that divides literary work from suspenseful drama, Soon Wiley’s When We Fell Apart skillfully inhabits both genres.”
Marginalia

"In writing When We Fell Apart, notable new novelist Soon Wiley has masterfully woven a story where his two protagonists come from very different experiences and places, yet share the struggle to carve out their own identities. Set in modern-day Seoul, it’s also a love letter to Korea itself, but one that doesn’t pull any punches."
Asian America: The Ken Fong Podcast

“When We Fell Apart is so expertly plotted and paced, told in prose so lean and lucid that it’s hard to believe that this book in my hands is a first novel. It’s thrilling, deeply human, heartbreaking. It’s equal parts mystery and exploration of identity and duality. What isn’t hard to believe is that Soon Wiley is writer we’ll be hearing from for years to come."
—Michael Knight, author of Eveningland

"A love story, arresting mystery, and global novel of identity in one, When We Fell Apart takes us on a captivating journey through the bright lights and dark byways of modern Seoul, exploring what it means—and what it costs—to be ourselves and live freely. With elegance, sophistication, and verve, Soon Wiley delivers a beautiful debut novel."
—Jack Wang, award-winning author of We Two Alone


"With rich prose, [Soon Wiley] deftly captures the voices of Min and Yu-jin, as they grapple with love and loss, identity, and obligation. Suspenseful, layered, vivid, and true, this gorgeous novel left me gutted."
—Nicole Lundrigan, author of Hideaway and An Unthinkable Thing


"A story of loyalty, identity, obsession, and fear, When We Fell Apart is complex, smart, and hold-your-breath cinematic. Wiley has pulled off a stunning feat of insightful, unflinching storytelling, exploring the ways we strive and hope, succeed and fail—both as people and societies, and the damage we can all do with even the best of intentions."
—Grace O'Connell, author of Be Ready for the Lightning

"A complex, driving novel about the trap of belonging and the comfort of deception, Soon Wiley's When We Fell Apart is about all the different selves we present to each other."
—Naben Ruthnum, author of A Hero of Our Time

When We Fell Apart is a masterful debut novel propelled by yearning, edge-of-your seat suspense, and characters who will break your heart. Soon Wiley channels the crackling energy of Seoul, injecting heat, noise, and sultry desire on every page. If this book does not compel you to figure out what makes you feel alive and follow your passion wherever it leads, nothing will.”
—Josh Rolnick, award-winning author of Pulp and Paper

“The business of being yourself is anything but simple, and Wiley’s powerful novel knows it.”
—Peter Behrens, award-winning author of Carry Me

“When We Fell Apart is an absolutely mesmerizing and important novel, delving into all sorts of issues that everyone will find relatable. This book is a page-turner, propelling the reader toward the conclusion, which is both surprising and perfectly rendered when reached. A bravado debut.”
—Don Lee, award-winning author of Yellow and Country of Origin

"Set in Seoul, this brooding literary thriller explores the complicated relationship between Yu-jin, a young South Korean woman from a powerful family, and Min, a biracial Korean American who feels as out of place in his mother’s birth country as he did in his native United States. Chapters alternate between Min and Yu-jin’s perspectives to weave a story about the struggle to fit in while remaining true to oneself."
Poets & Writers

"There are parts of ourselves that only we know—parts that we don’t know how to reveal, even to those we spend the most time with, even to those who love us most. And then there are parts of ourselves that we haven’t yet discovered. When We Fell Apart, Soon Wiley’s debut novel, explores how these parts come to be known, and how keeping them hidden can be the undoing of relationships and lives."
Mochi Magazine

“Fueled by deep feeling and a powerful sense of place, the book gains real emotional traction in capturing the despair of striving individuals pushed to the margins by conformist norms . . . A dark coming-of-age tale in the form of a mystery.”
Kirkus Reviews

Author

© Rachel EH Photography
A native of Nyack, New York, SOON WILEY received his BA in English and Philosophy from Connecticut College. He holds an MFA from Wichita State University and is currently pursuing an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned him fellowships at Brush Creek Residency for the Arts in Wyoming and CAMAC–Centre d’art in France. He currently teaches English at Sidwell Friends in Washington, DC, where he resides with his wife and their two cats. View titles by Soon Wiley