Jack Calloway is an American widower with a young son. His job as a hotel developer keeps him in transit often, and his newest gig is a resort and spa being constructed on beautiful Jeju Island in South Korea. There are a lot of societal rules that Jack must master if he’s going to survive the political machinations of his superior, the General Manager, who is unhappy Jack got the position ahead of his son-in-law.
Jack seems to like the area. He wants to understand this culture, yet he feels his accommodations, which include a mansion, housekeeper/cook, and valet, are pretentious. Also, his valet, Song Woo-bin, a Jeju Island native, is too attentive and too…appealing. Jack hasn’t had relations with a man since before his marriage. His wife died a few years ago, but he suffers guilt for not having a very romantic relationship with her. Jack isn’t ready to face the attraction he feels for Woo-bin and his attempts to remove Woo-bin from his employ nearly costs Woo-bin his life. Attempting to rescue Woo-bin from the effects of his own callousness, Jack creates even bigger problems for himself and the young man he’s trying to help.
This story is an interesting glimpse into the differences between American and South Korean cultural mores. Jack has a lesbian sister and this has caused tension in his family. He isn’t certain if he’s gay or bisexual—or demisexual, perhaps. While having had relations with men in the past, Jack isn’t eager to pursue a gay relationship now, fearing it will further disrupt his family and confuse his son. He is told that homosexuality is not accepted in South Korea, and there is this pervasive toxic masculinity to the cultural descriptions that gave me impressions of rampant power abuse and sexual harassment. Jack’s competitor for his own job recognizes how attached he has become to Woo-bin and seeks to sabotage both Jack’s and Woo-bin’s careers—while operating under a thin veneer of professional respect. Jack’s assistant, a capable and astute woman, is belittled by the men in power—not Jack, but the Korean men. I had a deep sense of social repression and emotional frustration that was mirrored through Jack’s own feelings.
I liked this story, though the pacing felt wonky. It seemed to crawl through moments, and then jump days at a time. Also, Jack really doesn’t know how to keep his emotions on the down-low. He’s exploding with indignation for Woo-bin being his attentive valet, then he’s dashing off to rescue Woo-bin for days on end, jeopardizing his job for a virtual stranger. He looked all sorts of shifty with all this extra emo nonsense. Jack knows he’s doing things wrong, but once he accepts his feeling for Woo-bin, he can’t stop himself from making a spectacle of himself while chasing the young man. The ever-watchful eyes of Jack’s “colleagues” pick up on his culturally inappropriate, socially awkward actions and it makes life a thousand times more difficult. I was on the verge of smacking Jack for how frustrated he was after he made life so difficult for himself, and Woo-bin. I was also confused about Jack’s age, at times, because he is supposed to be deep into his thirties, but his impetuous actions seemed nearly juvenile.
There’s a little bit of sexytimes and a lot of intrigue, from which Jack must rescue Woo-bin yet again. A lot of the book is spent with Jack and Woo-bin separated–emotionally as well as physically. The end is happy, however, and I will admit to being more than a little interested in visiting South Korea after experiencing the lush descriptions of Jeju Island.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.