The Foreign Student
by Susan Choi is a romantic novel about the love story between a Korean student and a wealthy Southern Belle from a troubled family who find themselves drawn together over and over again on the Sewanee campus. As Chuck Anh and Katherine Monroe discuss their past traumas, current obsessions, and defeated attempts at romance, they slowly find themselves growing into close friends, and finally succumbing to their blooming romance.
The novel begins on the campus of Sewanee, the University of the South. Set in the mid-1950s, just after the Korean War, it features Katherine Monroe, a woman in her mid-twenties living at her parents’ summer home on the Sewanee campus, and Chuck Anh, formerly known as Chang, who has come to Sewanee on a scholarship after serving as a translator in the Korean War. At the beginning of the novel, Katherine is a solitary, older woman living a quiet life in the mountains, obviously haunted by a dark episode from her past. Chuck is similarly lonely, solitary, and traumatized by the war, about which he won't speak at all. His halting knowledge of English puts a wall between him and his peers; not until he meets Katherine does he begin to feel some hope for his salvation in America.
Initially, Katherine and Chuck are brought together repeatedly by chance. Neither of them seems to understand, entirely, the reason for their continual meetings, but as they become acquainted, they find themselves discussing the details of their pasts – details that they didn't anticipate sharing with anyone. Much of the novel is consumed with these flashbacks and backstory narratives, which reveal the secrets of both Chuck and Katherine.
Katherine's early life, though seemingly privileged, is haunted by a love affair with a much older professor Charles Addison. Addison was a friend and former classmate of her father, and Katherine spends much of the story recalling the summer she was fourteen, when Addison, in his thirties, seduced her. Katherine remains obsessed with Addison, who refuses to acknowledge their affair, and has spent countless years at her family's home on the Sewanee campus hoping to get close to Addison again. Katherine believes that Addison changed her life, but others listening to her story wonder if his abuse wasn't the cause of her eventual ruin.
Chuck, on the other hand, experienced the atrocities of a dirty and forgotten war during his years working as a translator. He talks to Katherine about fleeing his home in Seoul when the communists arrived to take over and finding himself in an internment camp. He is particularly haunted by an event which forced him to betray someone who had helped save his life; it was the single event that caused him to realize he needed to leave his home country to find a new life elsewhere.
The more they talk, the closer Katherine and Chuck come to each other. Their friendship turns into a budding romance, but Katherine is startled and confused when Professor Addison, the man whom she believes she loves more than anyone, proposes to her. At the same time, Katherine's mother is dying, and she leaves Sewanee to return to her home in New Orleans, to sit with her mother on her deathbed. Confused, Katherine decides to invite Chuck to visit her at her family home. Once he arrives, Chuck and Katherine, both realizing the depth of their feelings for each other, finally come to terms with their haunted pasts and with their shared love.
Overall, The Foreign Student
is a novel about the haunted lives of all its characters, and the healing power of shared trauma, despite cultural, racial, and national differences.
Susan Choi is the author of four novels and a professor of English at Yale University. Her first novel, The Foreign Student
won the Asian-American literary award for fiction, among other honors. Choi is also the author of American Woman
, Person of Interest
, and My Education
. She has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and in 2010, received the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award. She has also received fellowships from Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts. She currently lives in Brooklyn.