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"I'll Be Right There" by Kyung-Sook Shin & avocado toast

"I'll Be Right There" by Kyung-Sook Shin & avocado toast

In South Korea in the late 1980s, Jung Yoon returns to college after a year's absence following her mother's death. She makes a list of five promises: Start reading again; Write down new words and their definitions; Memorize one poem a week; Do not go to Mom's grave before the Chuseok holiday; Walk around the city for at least two hours a day.

So begins a flashback that stretches the length of I'll Be Right There, a tragic story that explains why a phone call eight years in the making, about a beloved professor's imminent death, unleashes a torrent of emotion, pain and uncertainty. 

In Professor Yoon's poetry class, Yoon meets Myungsuh, a mysteriously attractive male student, and his companion Miru, who walks always with her hands in her pockets and head down. Chance encounters transform them from classmates into friends. Shared experiences exploring their city and writing stories line by line in Miru's diary transform them again into soulmates. But as the months pass and the terrible secrets of Miru's past pain emerge, Yoon is caught between giving in to her love for Myungsuh and supporting Miru as she battles her demons.

The South Korea they live in is fraught with strife. Demonstrators protest for freedom and democracy, and against the machine that mysteriously kills or disappears citizens. Many South Koreans suffer from a lack of closure, protesting in violent and public ways, or placing crying phone calls in the middle of the night, hoping the stranger at the other end can provide information.

The book is rife with foreshadowing. A newly-enlisted soldier teased abut acquiring a firearm is suspiciously killed by his own weapon. For Miru, who cooks well, food is an undoing. Kyung Sook-Shin, who wrote with beauty and drama in Please Look After Mom, returns with that same grace in this novel.

As Yoon and Myungsuh grow in their love for each other and get swept up in the daily protests, they must also cope with the losses of their respective childhood friends, experiences that damage them so much that they struggle to pass the denial phase of grief. Those insurmountable pains drive them apart, but the reader wonders throughout: Will Professor Yoon's passing reunite them?

For me, Miru was the most tragic and interesting character in I'll Be Right There. We go more than half the book before learning the secrets of her scarred hands and missing sister, and its revelation is as transformative for the reader as it is for Yoon, its true recipient. Miru obsessively records everything she eats, listing specifics about the style, quantity and size of each ingredient in a dish. It's a coping mechanism.

That practice reminded me of the way I often take pictures of my meals before eating them, albeit for banal reasons. And that reminded me of this article, which wrote "the avocado, which once looked to our eye like a reptilian egg, is aesthetically well suited to the Instagram age." The statement is even more true for avocado toast. I like to think Miru would have written about this pairing in her diary: 1 slice multigrain bread, toasted; 3 slices roma tomato; 1 small avocado, mashed; fried egg; salt and pepper;

An avocado toast recipe for Kyung Sook-Shin's tragic novel, "I'll Be Right There" | www.paperplatesblog.com

AVOCADO TOAST

Ingredients:

  • 1 slice multigrain bread, thick-cut, toasted
  • 3 slices roma tomato
  • 1 small avocado, mashed
  • half a lime
  • fried egg, optional
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Spritz the mashed avocado with lime juice. Spread avocado mashed over toast, then top with tomato slices; sprinkle with salt. Add fried egg, if desired, then lightly salt and pepper to taste and serve while the yolk is still runny.

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The TBR List: Freeze

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The TBR List: Six