Jessica Jung’s debut novel Shine explores the darker side of K-pop

Shine by Jessica Jung. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster Publishing
Shine by Jessica Jung. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster Publishing /

Jessica Jung’s debut novel Shine tells the story of Rachel Kim’s dream of becoming the next K-pop sensation — and everything she’ll have to do to earn it.

K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation and BTS have skyrocketed to global popularity in recent years, prompting more and more curiosity among fans about what really goes on backstage — and before these performers even step into the spotlight.

Though former K-pop star Jessica Jung’s debut novel is fictional, it’s clear she makes an effort to draw from her own experiences as a Korean American industry hopeful to shape Rachel’s story of perseverance, heartbreak, and dedication to her seemingly unattainable dreams.

Rachel Kim’s hope of rising to the top of the K-pop world is close to paying off. But no matter how hard she tries, she just can’t achieve the level of perfection expected of every girl who shares the exact same dream.

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At 17 years old, she’s running out of time to prove to DB Entertainment’s executives that she has what it takes to debut as part of the corporation’s next girl group. The pressure is on, and with her rival Mina constantly on her case, she’s not sure she’ll make it.

That is, until a poorly timed run-in with K-pop star Jason Lee changes everything.

For better or for worse? That depends on the chapter.

I’ve yet to sit down to watch a K-drama. (There are a lot of books to read, okay?) But if they’re anything like Jung’s delightful roller coaster of a novel, that’s going to have to change sooner rather than later.

Shine is a character-driven story that will leave you emotionally worn out by the time you land on the final page. Mina’s dark, manipulative personality threatens Rachel’s chances at success at almost every turn. Even Rachel’s biggest supporters — her father and one of her mentors — often seem to waiver in their support of her questionable choices.

And despite his charm, Jason’s affection for Rachel never quite feels fully genuine — or is it?

Though we’ll never know how on-target Jung’s depiction of what it takes to rise to K-pop stardom actually is, casting a dark shadow over the industry makes for a truly fascinating and haunting book.

Rachel and her fellow trainees are subjected to weigh-ins, fittings, and constant criticism of every move they make. Not only are they forbidden to date, but they’re also discouraged from having lives outside their training simply by default — those who spend the most time rehearsing and perfecting their craft are the ones most likely to win DB executives’ favor.

As you can already guess, such a competitive environment filled with teenage girls only gets more heated when rumors of a relationship between Rachel and Jason begin to surface.

They might not be rumors. Rachel may not even mind.

If you’re in the mood for a drama-heavy story that ends on an unexpectedly chilling high note, don’t toss this book into your bottomless to-be-read-at-some-point-maybe pile. It’s quick enough to devour in a weekend. It’s far too intriguing to put down.

And once you’re done, you’ll find yourself begging for more.

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Shine is available now wherever books are sold.