Susan Choi Essay - Critical Essays

Choi, Susan


Susan Choi The Foreign Student

Susan Choi is an American novelist.

An Indiana native raised in Texas, Susan Choi is the author of short fiction that has appeared in publications such as Iowa Review and Epoch magazine. Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student (1998), is a love story set in the 1950s that involves dramatically different cultural backgrounds but through which the protagonists find shared experience. The author drew on her Korean-American background to shape a novel that is a collection of scenes and small narratives, features that have drawn comparisons to the writing of Amy Tan, with its "loosely woven" tales, as one reviewer put it. The Foreign Student takes place mostly in Sewanee, Tennessee and centers around Chang "Chuck" Ahn, a 25-year old Korean-born son of a university professor at the University of the South on a scholarship; and Katherine Monroe, a woman in her late 20s who lives in Sewanee in her family's old summer home. Their intersecting lives form the focal point of the narrative which blends descriptions of small-town life with drama from the Korean war. Katherine and Chuck's paths cross over the years and their memories—in the form of fragments of their pasts—are part of the fabric of the narrative that Choi presents in The Foreign Student. Richard Eder observed that "when they meet, Chang and Katherine have traveled journeys that fractured them in very different ways." Chuck, who served as a translator for the United States during the Korean war, has seen the horrors of war and as an immigrant has to adapt to the American South. Katherine has known a quieter yet not untroubled life. The main source of disharmony for her is a perturbing affair with a university professor who is friend of the family and with whom Katherine has been involved from the age of 14 until the novel's present time. Katherine invites Chuck to New Orleans, where her mother is dying, and there the two come to terms with their pasts. One critic saw in the novel the theme of survival—depicted in the intimate struggles of the protagonists and in the larger historical backdrop. Choi's use of the Korean war setting (1950–53) has been appreciated by several reviewers who have noted a paucity of American writing covering that historical period. Critics are generally not taken by the love story itself, and the novel's plot and character development arc not seen as prominent achievements. Choi's prose style, on the other hand, has been widely praised for its economy, and has been described as "unburnished," "clear-eyed," and "startlingly expressive." The Foreign Student is generally regarded as a convincing first novel. Charlie Dickinson, for example, observed in Choi a "sensitivity to emotional electricity," and Michele Leber wrote that Choi has written "a resonant story" that "blends unlikely elements" in a way that "immerses the reader in the times, places, and lives of her characters as only the best fiction can."


Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 July 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Foreign Student, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXVI, July 1, 1998, p. 913.

[The following review provides a synopsis of The Foreign Student and a brief evaluation of the novel's strengths.]

[The Foreign Student is] an uneven first novel that elegantly details the love story of two young people, a Korean student and a southern beauty, whose earlier lives have been shaped by war and obsession. Like so many current debut novels, the writing here is stronger than plot or character, but Choi, in giving her male protagonist a Korean background, especially one shaped by a less familiar war, the Korean War, adds a refreshingly unusual dimension to her tale. Set in the mid-1950s, and taking place mostly at Sewanee, the University of the South, the story begins when Chuck Ahn, formerly Chang, meets Katherine Monroe. Now in her late 20s, Katherine, living at Sewanee in her family's old summer home, is in love with Charles Addison, an older professor; he was a classmate of her father's at Sewanee who seduced her the summer she was 14. Chuck, who recently served as a translator for the American forces, is there on a scholarship. As the year passes, Katherine and Chuck keep meeting by accident in scenes that alternate with their recollections of the past. Katherine recalls how she came to be seduced, and how her obsessive love for Addison has shaped, or perhaps, as one observer suggests, ruined her life. Chuck remembers the privations of the war years; his flight when the communists retook Seoul, and, in an internment camp, his betrayal of someone who'd once helped him, an act that determined him to leave Korea. A surprise proposal of marriage from Addison finally makes Katherine confront her confused feelings. In New Orleans for the summer to be with her dying mother, she invites Chuck to visit. He does, and the two at last accept their pasts, and, in the best tradition, though the affair never crackles with convincing tension, each other. While the love story never seems all that credible or affecting, Choi has tried to write a great sweep of a novel that is both moving and intelligent. The result is deserving of praise, and the author of encouragement.

Publishers Weekly (review date 6 July 1998)

SOURCE: Review of The Foreign Student, in Publishers Weekly, July 6, 1998, Vol. 245, No. 27, p. 47.

[The following review considers Choi "grave, clear-eyed and artless."]

Love develops between two troubled people from vastly different worlds in this impressive debut [The Foreign Student]. In 1955, traumatized Korean refugee Chang, or Chuck, as he is renamed by an American soldier, arrives at college in Sewanee, Tenn. Haunted by his war experiences, he lives in seclusion until he meets Katherine Monroe, a New Orleans heiress. Estranged from her family, Katherine, too, is mired in the past, having begun an affair at age 14 with an English professor nearly 30 years her senior. As their unlikely friendship develops, the two are sexually drawn to each other and enter into a brief but passionate affair. Choi evokes the terrain of the Tennessee mountains with a cinematic touch, She also displays a keen eye for the courtly manners of a small Southern town. But it is in her beautifully detailed evocation of the rich, albeit scarred emotional landscapes of her characters that she is at her best—grave, clear-eyed and artless. Indeed, the paths that bring Chuck and Katherine together are more convincingly traced than their eventual relationship, which at times seems somewhat contrived, the one weakness in a work full of ambition and considerable talent.

Library Journal (review date August 1998)

SOURCE: Review of The Foreign Student, in Library Journal, August 1998 Vol. 123, No. 13, p. 129.

[The following review complains about "a sense of confusion and disconnection" in Choi's writing.]

Set in Sewanee, Tennessee, this first novel [The Foreign Student] unravels the stories of 28-year-old Katherine Monroe and her friend "Chuck" Chang Ahn, a 25-year-old Korean-born student. Both characters have complex histories. For instance, at the age of 14, Katherine became involved with an English professor, a college roommate of her father's during his days at Sewanee. Equally poignant is Chuck's experience during the war in Korea, when he served as a translator for the United States. These tales, and a few others, linking minor and major characters, are loosely woven together in a fashion reminiscent of the writing of Amy Tan. However, the reader is unable to gain a strong sense of a single character before being moved to the next. Hence, when the story lines shift, the individual reader is left with a sense of confusion and disconnection. A good effort, but: not recommended.

Michele Leber (review date 19 August 1998)

SOURCE: Review of The Foreign Student, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 22, August 19, 1998, p. 1960.

[In the following review, Leber praises Choi's story-telling skills.]

First-novelist Choi blends unlikely elements into a resonant story that immerses the reader in the times, places, and lives of her characters as only the best fiction can. In the small college town of Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1955, a feisty southern belle meets a Korean student, but their pasts stand in the way of their mutual attraction. Katherine Monroe has spent half her life in love with the most prominent professor on campus, a man 28 years her senior and a friend of her parents, who first bedded her when she was 14. And Chang Ahn, a former translator for USIS who was caught in the ravages of his country's war, has escaped Korea but not his nightmares. In prose that is alternately spare and lush, Choi constructs a plot that only gradually reveals the horrors Chang has endured, at the same time raising the possibility of a happy future. Expect word-of-mouth and book-club interest in this accomplished, perceptive novel, which invites rereading and lingers in the reader's memory.

Richard Eder (review date 30 August 1998)

SOURCE: "Crossing Borders." in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 30, 1998, p. 2.

[In the following review of The Foreign Student, Eder examines Choi's handling of details of character, setting, and theme.]

Fiction as metaphor: as travel, that is. To be transported suddenly—the way a moving van lets the furniture fall asleep in one town and wake up in another, seemingly without transition. "Metaphora" is the word painted on the sides of Greek moving vans.

Chang, a Korean student at college in the Tennessee hills in the late 1950s, is such a van. We could travel to Korea half a dozen times and never possess the intimate sense of being there...

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Jill Smolowe (review date 7 September 1998)

SOURCE: Review of The Foreign Student, in Time, Vol. 152, No. 10, September 7, 1998, p. 83.

[In the following short review, Smolowe notes a "striking maturity" in Choi's work.]

In 1955, at a moment informed by the prejudices born of America's recent "stewardship" of South Korea, they come together in a Tennessee college town: Katherine, a fallen Southern belle, and Chang, a visiting Korean student. Initially, their interwoven stories seem as uncomfortably mismatched as they themselves are. Chang's vivid memories of the Korean War, peppered with brutality and salted with bitterness toward his countrymen and his American mentors, block his ability to envision a...

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Charlie Dickinson (review date 26 September 1998)

SOURCE: Review of The Foreign Student, in Savoy Magazine (online publication), September 26, 1998.

[In the following review, Dickinson comments on Choi's handling of the formal and thematic elements of The Foreign Student.]

The Korean War (1950–53) is sometimes called America's forgotten war. It took M∗A∗S∗H to bring the 38th Parallel out from the shadows of Allied victory in WWII and the debacle of Vietnam. What must not be forgotten, of course, is that 54,000 Americans gave their lives in Korea, a sacrifice equaling that of the more-publicized and controversial Vietnam War.

Against this Fifties backdrop. Susan Choi sets her...

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Kimberly B. Marlowe (review date 18 October 1998)

SOURCE: Review of The Foreign Student, in New York Times, October 18, 1998.

[In the following review, Marlowe focuses on the "intricate portrait" of Choi's characters.]

Susan Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student, is a richly detailed exploration of a young man's escape from the nightmare of a country torn by war. During a stint as a translator for the American information services in Seoul, a young Korean named Chang Ahn is caught up in the political turmoil and forced into a life on the run. By August 1955, two years after the cease-fire has ended the war, Chang has managed to emigrate to the United States, where he attempts to settle into the life of...

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