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What We Kept to Ourselves by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Historical fiction

What We Kept to Ourselves

by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

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Quick take

Follow one Korean-American family moving between ‘70s and ‘90s LA as they grapple with the meaning of home and dreams.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_FamilyDrama

    Family drama

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_NonLinear

    Nonlinear timeline

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Immigration

    Immigration

Synopsis

1999: The Kim family is struggling to move on after their mother, Sunny, vanished a year ago. Sixty-one-year-old John Kim feels more isolated from his grown children, Anastasia and Ronald, than ever before. But one evening, their fragile lives are further upended when John finds the body of a stranger in the backyard, carrying a letter to Sunny, leaving the family with more questions than ever about the stranger’s history and possible connections to their mother.

1977: Sunny is pregnant and has just moved to Los Angeles from Korea with her aloof and often-absent husband. America is not turning out the way she had dreamed it to be, and the loneliness and isolation are broken only by a fateful encounter at a bus stop. The unexpected connection spans the decades and echoes into the family’s lives in the present as they uncover devastating secrets that put not only everything they thought they knew about their mother but their very lives at risk.

Both a riveting page-turner and moving family story, What We Kept to Ourselves masterfully explores the consequences of secrets between parents and children, hus­bands and wives. It is the story of one unforgettable family’s search for home when all seems lost, and a powerful meditation on identity, migration, and what it means to dream in America.

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Free sample

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What We Kept to Ourselves

1999

The night he found the body behind the loquat tree in his yard, John had driven home from work like on any other evening, weighed down by the usual worries. These troubles had become so familiar that he never questioned them anymore, and because he never shared them with anyone, they would forever go unchallenged. It was his misery after all.

These days his concerns hinged on the apocalyptic flavor of the moment—Y2K, or the Millennium Bug—like a futuristic disease or a line dance at a wedding. How could John protect his two children from something he didn’t understand? Asteroids and floods, all that biblical stuff, made more sense than technology, this internet, which was spooky, invisible, and everywhere at once.

But they weren’t even children anymore. His daughter Ana was already an adult, a college graduate living in Berkeley—leafy streets crunching underfoot like granola in the fall and dimly lit coffee shops with dogs snoozing at people’s feet—less than four hundred miles away, but much too far in his mind. And his son Ronald had already finished half his senior year in high school.

The house was quiet with them no longer on the phone, vaporized by this thing called email and AOL. After John had spent over a year saving up for the Packard Bell PC tower, all he could hear now from his son’s bedroom were the robotic chirps and static fuzz of the dial-up, an occasional burst of laughter, his fingers chicken-pecking the keys. Their thoughts and feelings now traveled in wires, through air, like ghosts.

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Why I love it

“What was love but a ripeness of unexpected feeling, a rush to dedicate oneself, to kneel at the altar of another’s well-being without losing, but in the process, gaining another self?”

How well do we really know the people we’re closest to? This question is deeply explored in Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s What We Kept to Ourselves, a novel that reads as a gripping mystery enfolded within a family drama.

Here, we meet Sunny and John, an isolated Korean-American couple whose marriage has worn thin in the struggles of immigration and parenthood. When Sunny disappears one winter day, leaving behind her teenaged children, Ronald and Ana, John must grapple with his wife’s betrayal, along with his own culpability in their family’s dissolution.

A year after the disappearance, John stumbles upon a dead, unhoused man in the family’s yard bearing a letter with Sunny’s name on it. This discovery prompts a winding search through time, laced with treachery and moments of unexpected tenderness. As the secrets unfurl, we learn about Sunny’s inner life, teeming with rich ambitions beneath her exterior as a housewife and a mother. We begin to piece together a story that spans continents, unexpectedly stitching together two families longing for connection.

What We Kept to Ourselves is an abiding testament to the power of human empathy, even within hurdles of language, age, and race. It’s a story I won’t forget any time soon.

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Member ratings (337)

  • Jennifer N.

    Syracuse, NY

    This book was a wonderful look at the lives of 2 Koren immigrants, how they adjusted to America life in 2 different ways,and what impact it had on their american born children.

  • Alexa B.

    Portland, OR

    I was so happy to read another book from this incredible author. The story of Sunny and the whole Kim family was one I cherished. Both mystery and about finding yourself.

  • Megan G.

    Elkridge , MD

    This book was so well written, and is so important for the discussion on the topics of immigration, what it's like to be an immigrant, veterans, combat PTSD.

  • Peyton H.

    Auburn, WA

    This was touching and reminded me of the stories that my grandfather used to tell me before he settled in San Diego.

  • Cynthia S.

    Portage, MI

    An intricate family story wrapped in a mystery. Kept my attention throughout the book.

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