‘Jenny didn’t get to be an award-winning, classically trained cellist without choosing practice over fun. That is, until the night she meets Jaewoo. Mysterious, handsome, and just a little bit tormented, Jaewoo is exactly the kind of distraction Jenny would normally avoid. And yet, she finds herself pulled into spending an unforgettable evening wandering Los Angeles with him on the night before his flight home to South Korea.
With Jaewoo an ocean away, there’s no use in dreaming of what could have been. But when Jenny and her mother move to Seoul to take care of her ailing grandmother, who does she meet at the elite arts academy she’s just been accepted to? Jaewoo.
Finding the dreamy stranger who swept you off your feet in your homeroom is one thing, but Jaewoo isn’t just any student. Turns out, Jaewoo is a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands in the world. And like most K-pop idols, Jaewoo is strictly forbidden from dating anyone.
When a relationship means not only jeopardizing her place at her dream music school but also endangering everything Jaewoo’s worked for, Jenny has to decide once and for all just how much she’s willing to risk for love.’
XOXO is a fun read that would be perfect for adaptation into a K-Drama, and is one of the YA books that I’ve most enjoyed this year. The story follows Jenny, who is determined to follow the path she has set out for herself, which involves reaching one of the top universities to continue her studies of music and… what doesn’t sound like an awful lot of living or fun, her focus settled squarely on her academics. When she meets Jaewoo, she finds herself starting to question her choices, and when circumstances temporarily bring her and her mother to Seoul to take care of her grandmother, a new school and new friends begin to broaden her horizons and make her wonder whether she is essentially building a lonely life for herself. But is the alternative too big a risk to take, especially when it could cost her a place at her dream university – and Jaewoo and his friends everything that they have achieved in the spotlight?
The lives of Jaewoo and the XOXO band – and, by extension, very nearly everyone that they associate with – shine a light on the expectations of those who spend their lives in the media in Korea, and highlight the pressures that young stars are under and the rules that they are expected to follow. The one that impacts Jenny and Jaewoo’s relationship the most is the fact that he isn’t supposed to be involved with anyone, ostensibly so that he is seen to be prioritising his fans and seen as ‘available’, leaving him and others in his position with the choice of focusing on having the opportunity to use their talents or have any semblance of a personal life. It’s a world in which stars are judged harshly for any ‘mistakes’ that can cost them their careers, and in which anyone they are seen to be too fond of can become a target for negative comments from fans. As Jenny tries to learn to navigate this world and the impact her relationship with Jaewoo could have on not only their lives, but the lives of those around them, it’s clear that he is struggling with everything that fame has brought him, and though he cares very much for his band mates and enjoys performing, what else being part of XOXO means (such as the fact that he has to succeed to support his family) is not always easy for him to handle. References to his mental health are handled sensitively, as is that he is attending therapy, and the story also takes the opportunity to bring attention to the differences between how men and women are seen and treated in the media spotlight.
What gives the book its heart are the relationships between the characters, which aren’t always easy and don’t involve everybody getting along all the time, but it feel as if there is no-one truly nasty or malicious in the main cast, leaving the threats and pressures to be presented from the outside or media-brainwashed classmates, creating an interesting reflection of what it’s like to be in their shoes. Even when there are disagreements and misunderstandings, it still feels like they are on the same side, facing the same pressures, and ultimately understand what everyone is going through. They have each other’s backs and are supportive, trying to do what’s best in the best way that they can, even if it might not always be obvious or the easiest thing to do.
XOXO is out today! If you enjoy K-Dramas or have an interest in K-Pop, it’s definitely a book to look out for and would help brighten the summer. It’s a wonderful read with some lovely dialogue and a cast of characters that I hope we get to see again one day. Thank you to Harper360YA for sending me a copy!