3 star, YA

Review: Made in Korea by Sarah Suk

Frankly in Love meets Shark Tank in this feel-good romantic comedy about two entrepreneurial Korean American teens who butt heads—and maybe fall in love—while running competing Korean beauty businesses at their high school.

There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.

Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…

What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.

Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.

But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.

With more Asian own voices stories coming out in YA lately, I knew Made in Korea had to be on my list to read. While I enjoyed the Korean elements throughout, from k-pop to Korean beauty products and Asian family dynamics, it doesn’t stand out among the other contenders I’ve been reading. What does make it interesting is the business aspect of running student businesses in school.

Valerie and her cousin Charlie have been the top student-run business for the last few years. Having an inside person (Charlie’s dad who lives in Korea) send them shipments of Korean beauty products allows them to sell to students who are craving the latest trend that’s hard to get in North America. I liked this idea a lot, and it’s especially relatable as I personally like Asian beauty products myself. V&C K-BEAUTY was therefore a fun concept to follow along for Valerie.

Enter the competition, Wes. Starting high school in senior year is rough but he unwittingly puts himself in competition with Valerie when he starts selling k-pop merch from a group called Crown Tiger in order to make friends. While I’m not super into k-pop myself, I know many people who are and it’s no joke how far people will go for anything related to the stars they love and admire.

Each of them have their reasons for wanting to sell as much product as possible. Valerie dreams of taking her grandmother,whom she’s very close to, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris before she cannot go due to health reasons. She wants to prove to her tiger mom that she’s capable like her older sister who she’s always being compared to. Talk about Asian weariness when I read this. While it’s true for many friends and their parents I know, it makes me sometimes a little sad that it’s such a thing so many people have to go through in their families.

Wes, on the other hand, wants to save up moneyto attend music school. It’s his dream but his parents just don’t understand. As is the Asian way, they hope he would pursue a professional degree and take courses in science. So he needs to find it himself in order to even apply.

Both have such great reasons for what they need the money for. But poor communication keeps them at odds. A bet to give the other all of their savings from the year only makes it worse. They know they can only get enough money if they also attain the money the other business earned in the year. I couldn’t decide who I thought needed or deserved it more.

Personally I liked Wes more. Valerie put so much of her identity in her business to prove her self worth that she was willing to do things that were frankly shocking and rude. She saw people as customers or non-customers, and while she grows through this ordeal, I just didn’t like her as much as a person even when I sympathized with her situation.

The romance wasn’t as believable as I would have liked it. They weren’t exactly enemies but their poor communication just made things worse a lot of the time. Sure, I believe there’s attraction but I just didn’t root for them as a couple.

The best part of this story really was the resolution and growth that took place when they each confronted their families about the reasons why they wanted to earn the money. I liked that the author didn’t resolve everything into a perfect bow because families are more complicated than that but it gives hope that things can change with time and a bit of open mindedness.

All this is to say that Made in Korea had its unique elements, namely the business selling competition going on between our protagonists, and I loved the Korean references and culture seen throughout (like everyone’s huge love for bingsu!). I just wasn’t too invested in Wes and Valerie’s romantic relationship but I’m so here for everything else.

Overall Recommendation:

Made in Korea was a decent debut featuring Korean culture and influence. With rival Korean beauty student-businesses facing off their senior year, Valerie and Wes each fight for the best sales to achieve their dreams that feel so out of reach. I empathized with them, I wanted to hug them through the ordeals they faced with family, and I wished I had such student businesses in my high school. But as a romantic couple? I couldn’t feel it as deeply as I had hoped between Wes and Valerie but this story still wraps up a lot of wonderful concepts of family, self-worth and the experiences that shape us to still be a worthy book to add to your TBR, especially if you’re looking for more Asian own voices novels. I hope to see more from Sarah Suk one day.

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