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This Burns My Heart

A Novel

Samuel Park


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July 2011 Indie Next List

“In South Korea in 1960, Soo-Ja Choi is a beautiful young woman from a well-to-do family. As the country is struggling to recover from a divisive war and tries to enter the modern world, Soo-Ja is exploring her options as a young adult. When her father does not allow her to accept a position studying to be a diplomat, he destroys her dreams. Over the next 15 years, she struggles with her life decisions, her new family, and a love she gave up before she understood the permanence of choice. A compulsive read, the novel is based on the life of Park's mother.”
— Terry Gilman, Mysterious Galaxy Books, San Diego, CA
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In this "extraordinary" (Chicago Tribune) and compelling love story set in postwar Korea in the 1960s, an unhappily married woman struggles to give her daughter a good life and to find love in a society caught between ancient tradition and change.

On the eve of her marriage, beautiful and strong-willed Soo-Ja Choi receives a passionate proposal from a young medical student. But caught up in her desire to pursue a career in Seoul, she turns him away, having impetuously chosen another man who she believes will let her fulfill her dreams. Instead, she finds herself tightly bound by tradition and trapped in a suffocating marriage, her ambition reduced to carving out a successful future for her only daughter. Through it all, she longs for the man she truly loves, whose path she seems destined to cross again and again. In This Burns My Heart, Samuel Parks has crafted a transcendent love story that vibrantly captures 1960s South Korea and brings to life an unforgettable heroine.

Praise For This Burns My Heart: A Novel

“An incredible read . . . I don’t want it to end. I love it!” —Hoda Kotb, Today

“Extraordinary . . . A page-turner of a book . . . South Korea provides not only the backdrop of Soo-Ja’s story, but also the context for Park’s novel, which spans the decades after the Korean War to the beginning of the country’s economic boom. In a sense, Soo-Ja’s story parallels South Korea’s development from a poor, struggling state to a gleaming Asian tiger.” Chicago Tribune

“Memorable . . . Atmospheric and exuberantly filmic . . . a simple but visceral romance in a refreshing Korean setting.” The Miami Herald

“Park does a good job of bringing the rapidly changing South Korea of the 1960s alive. As cities sprout from beanfields and rickshaws give way to Kias, the world around Soo-Ja and her family is changing at a frightening speed. . . . I especially recommend this novel to readers who were intrigued (as was I) by Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, set in postwar China. The contrast is fascinating.” The Christian Science Monitor

This Burns My Heart is quietly stunning—a soft, fierce story that lingers in the mind. Samuel Park is a deft and elegant writer; this is a very exciting debut.” —Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife

“Vivid…atmospheric . . . Park’s descriptions of antigovernment clashes and the martyrdom of a 12-year-old boy, in particular, provide eerily prescient reverberations of recent clashes in Syria.” Boston Globe

“Writing prose with the beauty of poetry, Samuel Park traces a young woman's journey to hard-won maturity, alongside the meteoric rise of post-war Korea, in a novel which shines with eloquence and wisdom.” —David Henry Hwang, Tony-Award winning author of M. Butterfly

This Burns My Heart is a delicate yet powerful story of love, loss, and endurance. The emotional world of the heroine, Soo-Ja, is beautifully realized; I found myself caught up in her dramas from start to finish.” —Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger and Fingersmith

“Park does a good job of bringing the rapidly changing South Korea of the 1960s alive. As cities sprout from beanfields and rickshaws give way to Kias, the world around Soo-Ja and her family is changing at a frightening speed. . . . I especially recommend this novel to readers who were intrigued (as was I) by Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, set in postwar China. The contrast is fascinating.” The Christian Science Monitor

“An understatedly brilliant tale . . . Through Soo-Ja’s eyes, Park beautifully evokes 1960s war-torn South Korea.” Audrey Magazine

Simon & Schuster, 9781439199626, 336pp.

Publication Date: March 6, 2012

About the Author

Samuel Park was an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. He graduated from Stanford University and the University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate. He is the author of the novella Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the writer-director of a short film of the same name, which was an official selection of numerous domestic and international film festivals. He is also the author of the novels This Burns My Heart and The Caregiver. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times. Born in Brazil and raised in Los Angeles, he split his time between Chicago and Los Angeles. In April 2017, Samuel Park died of stomach cancer at the age of 41 shortly after finishing The Caregiver. 

Book Videos

Conversation Starters from

  1. Early in their courtship, Soo-Ja thinks of Min as weak: “But what she realized was that she wouldn’t mind that—being the strong one. She’d like to swoop in and care for Min, who seemed like such a lost soul sometimes… He was the opposite of Yul, who seemed to need nothing and no one.” (p. 51-52) Is Soo-Ja’s perception accurate? Does Min change throughout the book, or has he just masked himself during their courtship? Is Soo-Ja naÏve to want such an unbalanced (and untraditional) relationship?
  2. Soo-Ja is angry that she was tricked by Min, but her objective was to trick him as well: “She thought she was the one using him, when the opposite had been true.” (p. 81) Is she getting what she deserved? Who had better motivation? Do their motivations matter?
  3. Why do Soo-Ja and Yul have such a strong connection, even though they rarely see each other?
  4. Discuss Soo-Ja’s relationship with her parents. Which parent is she closer to? Which parent understands her better?
  5. Compare Soo-Ja’s relationship with her parents with that of Min and his parents. Do you see any similarities?
  6. After hearing about Soo-Ja’s ordeal when Hana was lost, her father tells her, “When you let me be your father and let me worry about you, care for you, and even suffer for you, you’re not doing a favor to yourself, you’re doing a favor to me. When you need me, I am alive.” (p. 177) Discuss the significance of this statement. How is this true in his life and in Soo-Ja’s? Do you think this statement applies to all parents?
  7. Min asks Soo-Ja, “If you had to choose, would you rather be yourself or Eun-Mee?” (p. 291) in an attempt to elicit empathy from her. Soo-Ja realizes, “The thing about capturing a prize fish is that everyone admires the fish, and soon forgets about the fisherman.” (p. 292) Do you think Soo-Ja feels pity for Min? Do you? Why or why not?
  8. When Hana tells Soo-Ja she should have done something about her unhappiness, Soo-Ja realizes, “She had never lived for herself, and in that, she found her greatest mistake and her greatest glory. Her selflessness had not been entirely chosen, but rather forced out of her, by her family” (p. 332), and then tells Hana that it is indeed her own fault. Do you agree? What could Soo-Ja have done differently? What would you have done in her place? What forces were working against her?
  9. Why does Min finally agree to let Soo-Ja and Hana go? What causes his change of heart, and why did it take him so long?
  10. The title of the novel is This Burns My Heart, which is how Soo-Ja and Yul feel about their forced separation. Discuss the meaning of the title, and how Soo-Ja and Yul deal with their pain. What else does the title capture in the novel?
  11. Throughout the novel, Soo-Ja regrets saying “No” to Yul’s proposal back when she was 22. “We’re only given one life, and it’s the one we live, she had thought; how painful now, to realize that wasn’t true, that you would have different lives, depending on how brave you were, and how ready.” (p. 285) How does this statement compare with her revelation that “The life she had was in fact the one she’d been supposed to have” (p. 352). Reread both passages. Which do you agree with, or do you have a different philosophy? In your own life, can you see one monumental decision that changed the course of your life, even if you didn’t know it at the time?
  12. Discuss the role of women in the novel. How does their position in society shift during Soo-Ja’s lifetime? Think about the increasing opportunities for Soo-Ja’s mother, herself, and her daughter Hana.
  13. The changing society of South Korea after the Korean War provides the backdrop for the story, and one of the themes of this novel is the balance of traditional family roles with an increasingly modern society. Discuss examples of this conflict that stood out to you in the novel. How do you see the growth of the country evidenced throughout the novel?