I absolutely loved Maurene Goo’s Somewhere Only We Know. On one level, as I used to say as a teenager, it’s totally kilig to the bones! (“Kilig” is a Tagalog word that refers to a rush of sheer joy and giddiness because of romantic love.) This story of a K-pop superstar who falls in love with an undercover tabloid photographer during a day of exploring Hong Kong is, quite simply, the kind of cheesy, feel-good romance that takes me back to my childhood. It’s such a delight to read, and I was rooting for these characters all the way through.
I also love all the little touches that really make Hong Kong come to life in this story. As much as this is about the love story between Lucky and Jake, Somewhere Only We Know is equally also a love story to Hong Kong. Goo takes her characters through a wide range of Hong Kong attractions, from major tourist attractions like a spot that overlooks the entire city to an independent bookstore tucked away by a movie theatre. I haven’t been to Hong Kong in years, but this book makes me wish I was there.
Both Lucky and Jake are Korean-American. (Both are born to Korean parents who immigrated to America. Lucky’s family is still based in LA and Jake’s family moved to Hong Kong for his father’s job.) And I also love how Goo includes little details that make this feel so real throughout the story. For instance, Jake initially recognizes Lucky’s Korean heritage when she inadvertently blurts out a Korean expression. Their conversations also reveal how being Korean-American has impacted their lives, in some ways fairly similarly but in other ways also very different from each other. I love that both feel somewhat displaced in Hong Kong, and how both are also fairly fluid in their perspectives of home.
Beyond the kilig factor, the story does also tackle some important issues. Some are pretty standard YA themes of figuring out one’s identity and following one’s passion, and despite both teens’ fairly glamorous experiences of this, Goo makes them both feel very relatable. For example, Lucky’s success in K-pop means she needs to focus a lot more on her brand than on the actual singing, and despite her fame, she’s beginning to feel disengaged from what brought her to this career in the first place. And Jake wants to be a photographer, but is too afraid to tell his parents he doesn’t want to join his father in a bank, so he has to pursue his passion in secret through his tabloid work.
But Goo also includes some more serious themes that I didn’t expect. For example, Lucky lives with anxiety, and manages this with medication. I thought this aspect of her life would have played a larger role throughout the story, but I liked the way it turned out in the end. Through Lucky, Goo also reveals some of the darker realities of K-pop stardom — eyelid surgery, unhealthy diets, and so on — in order for these stars to appeal more to a Western / Westernized standard of beauty. There’s a part where Lucky says that once in a while, someone does an expose, and their fans are horrified for a while, but then move on pretty quickly. I thought that was a sad and unfortunate truth about the reality of stardom, and I like that Goo includes this in her story.
But overall, Somewhere Only We Know is an utter delight of a book. It was so much fun to read. I loved Lucky and Jake (and wouldn’t mind a sequel about Jake’s cab driver friend!), and I enjoyed seeing their story unfold.
Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this in exchange for an honest review.