The Picture Bride is a novel written by Lee Geum-yi and originally published in March 2020 in Korean. It has been translated into English by An Seonjae and hits shelves October 11, 2022. I am grateful to have received an ARC through NetGalley and am excited to share my honest thoughts on it.
The story follows Willow, a young woman who is growing up as the only daughter of a widowed mother. She is forced to leave school in order to assist her mother with taking care of her younger brothers and keeping the household. Willow dreams of one day returning to continue her education, but circumstances in Korea are not ideal for that dream to come true.
Enter the Pusan Ajimae telling Willow and her mother about an eligible bridegroom in Hawaii. Willow is told that food and clothing are so abundant that they grow on trees and she can return to school to get the education she so longs for. With stars in her eyes, she agrees and thus begins her journey as a picture bride.
I graduated with my bachelor's degree in Asian American Studies over a decade ago. I say this to provide context as I believe my history with the subject matter affected 1) my choice to read this story and 2) my engagement of this story as a reader (though my studies were primarily of Chinese immigrants and this story was about Korean immigrants).
The explanation of how one becomes a picture bride in this story has the chance to read as dull, but the way that Geum-yi went about it brought heart to it that grounded it in reality. The main character of Willow was fleshed out in such a way that you were able to not only understand her feelings and motives, but you were almost able to understand where she was going to go before even she did.
The dynamic between the picture brides was loving and vulnerable. Even in moments where there was jealousy or envy, I never felt like these women were being pitted against each other. It was refreshing to see women supporting each other even in the face of various negative emotions.
While I was familiar with the concept of picture brides, I will admit that my knowledge of the events happening in Korea and the Korean community in Hawaii during this time is very limited. The historical pieces of this novel were really brought to life by the way each of the characters reacted to what was going on around them. Geum-yi was able to paint a full picture of life during this time and it makes me want to pull out some history books and learn more about it.
Understanding the concept of picture brides going in, I did not expect much, if any, romance to be present in this story. While the romance that we normally see in stories is not present, there are touches that brought romance vibes to the forefront. There are also a lot of depictions of non-romantic love and the different ways in which you are able to show someone you care.
I had a small handful of moments where I was reminded that this story was a translation and the original text was not English, but it did not take away my enjoyment of the story as a whole. If more history was presented to me in this way, I probably would've enjoyed learning about it while I was in school.