Group Discussion: Axie Oh’s XOXO

We had so much fun discussing “Fat Chance Charlie Vega” earlier this year that we decided another fun romance discussion was warranted. All of us are also lovers of KDramas, so Axie Oh’s “XOXO,” a love story set in Korea with a K-Pop star, was the perfect summer discussion for us. In addition, Crystal was able to interview Axie Oh about XOXO, so click the link to read her release day interview.  We want to say Thank You HarperTeen for providing all of us with an ARC in order to have our discussion.

Warning for spoilers ahead! 

XOXO book cover. A young woman and young man are standing facing each other with arms loosely around each others' waists. Along the sides of the street are Korean hanok style houses. In the background is a city scape with skyscrapers. styleCello prodigy Jenny has one goal: to get into a prestigious music conservatory. When she meets mysterious, handsome Jaewoo in her uncle’s Los Angeles karaoke bar, it’s clear he’s the kind of boy who would uproot her careful plans. But in a moment of spontaneity, she allows him to pull her out of her comfort zone for one unforgettable night of adventure…before he disappears without a word.

Three months later, when Jenny and her mother arrive in South Korea to take care of her ailing grandmother, she’s shocked to discover that Jaewoo is a student at the same elite arts academy where she’s enrolled for the semester. And he’s not just any student. He’s a member of one of the biggest K-pop bands in the world—and he’s strictly forbidden from dating.

When a relationship means throwing Jenny’s life off the path she’s spent years mapping out, she’ll have to decide once and for all just how much she’s willing to risk for love.

K. Imani: So, what do you all think about the book overall? I really loved it. I’m sure I had a goofy smile on my face the entire time I was reading. It felt like a KDrama, but in book form, with the various twists, the school bully, all the wonderful friends, and of course, the sweet slow burning romance. 

Jessica: I loved it! It was so much fun and had all the twists and drama that I love to see in YA. Ditto on the goofy smile — I couldn’t help smiling when I was reading. I just had to text my friends who love kpop and kdramas about XOXO and make sure they were planning on reading it when it came out. 

Crystal: I really had a lot of fun reading XOXO. There were so many hilarious moments, but like Jessica said, it also had plenty of drama. It was just the right mix of tension and lightheartedness. 

Audrey: XOXO was a delightful read–exactly what I needed during a rather stressful summer. It was familiar in a good way, where I was looking forward to different story beats and immensely pleased whenever they showed up. I didn’t intend to finish the book in one sitting, but it was so much fun that I pushed the rest of my responsibilities off to other days so I could. It’s always great to read a book when you can tell just how much the author loves the genre. This is definitely a book I would recommend to anyone in search of a contemporary romance.

K. Imani: One of the many “world-building” aspects of the novel that I liked was that Axie Oh didn’t describe much of Korean culture, instead the reader lived Korean culture, which is a big difference. This book was very much not written for the white gaze and I really felt like I was experiencing Seoul and South Korean life through Jenny’s eyes. 

Jessica: You absolutely hit the nail on the head. Books written for an assumed white audience are always so frustrating to me — the writing comes out stilted and alienating. Unfortunately, I think the gatekeepers in publishing tend to favor that kind of writing, so you’ll even occasionally see Asian American writers coming out with writing that’s obviously meant for the white gaze and ugh, it just makes me sad. But XOXO didn’t do that — it was so refreshing to read a book that celebrates Korean culture through a Korean character’s lens. I just really enjoyed seeing all those details as an integrated and integral part of the story. XOXO really pulled it off, and I’m so happy that Asian teens will get to read it.

Crystal: I too am excited for Asian teen readers to have another book with representation and it’s  awesome when authors don’t spend a bunch of time explaining every single thing so the average white reader won’t feel too lost. Jessica, I think you’re absolutely right about the gatekeepers and I hope that books like this one will help gatekeepers see that their beliefs about what readers want may be a lie they’ve accepted as fact. In XOXO we were immersed and it certainly helped make me see the setting and get that day-in-the-life-of experience that most readers would prefer even if they have to Google something once in a while.

Audrey: This is a great point! I’ve noticed this as well in some of the other BIPOC-authored books I’ve been reading lately–that they’re not explaining things that don’t need to be explained (because the character knows what they are and what they mean). As a reader, it’s refreshing to be trusted to pick up on things from context, and I’m sure BIPOC writers appreciate not being forced to explain basic things about their cultures all the time. Axie Oh did a great job of this in XOXO–I never felt like the story was being forced to break the fourth wall to deliver information to me about Korea or Korean culture that Jenny already knew.

K. Imani: I feel like that in addition to romantic love, XOXO was also about the different types of love and what we must do to maintain them. What stood out to me was the contrasts between Jenny’s relationship with her mother and with Halmeoni. Jenny’s love for her mother was strained because of how her mother rarely showed affection, but yet her growing relationship with Halmeoni was the opposite as it was sweet and full of love. What other love relationships stood out to you?

Jessica: I always get so invested in fraught mother-daughter relationships (relatable content!), particularly Asian ones, so I’m going to go back to that. The way Jenny’s relationships with her family grow and evolve was so compelling, especially that contrast you brought up between her mother and Halmeoni. Being a child of immigrants, it definitely makes me think of my own relationship with my mother and the tension and barriers that exist there. 

Crystal: The relationships Jenny has with her mother and Halmeoni definitely have interesting dynamics. Another relationship that got my attention was that of Jenny and her roommate Sori. They have a very rocky start and a few misunderstandings, but ultimately make a friendship happen. Also, did anyone else have hopes for a companion novel featuring Sori and a certain someone?

K. Imani: OMG Yessss!!! A companion novel would be perfect for Sori and a certain someone. We need their story too. 

Audrey: Like the rest of you, I loved the family relationships in XOXO and how varied they were. One of the things I was really happy about was how Jenny developed relationships with her classmates. Maybe I’m always too worried for characters when they move to a new place, but I was so relieved that Jenny was able to make multiple friends at her new school. Her gradual friendship with Sori was definitely the most rewarding, but it was great to see her build a network of friends rather than her entire social life hinging on her romance with Jaewoo. If there were to be a companion novel, I agree that Sori would be a great person to focus on!

K. Imani: Of course we have to talk about the romance. What was a sweet moment that stood out to you? For me, I loved when Jenny and Jaewoo run into his sister at the movies, then he takes her home. I feel like we get a real insight into Jaewoo’s life and he fully opens up to Jenny here. I feel like in that moment, they were going to overcome their obstacles and be happy together forever. 

Jessica: I have to say, I’m a sucker for a meetcute. My favorite was Jenny and Jaewoo’s initial meeting and their first time hanging out together, when Jenny had no idea who Jaewoo was. As the reader, knowing who Jaewoo really was while watching all this unfold was so much fun. Thinking about it makes me really, really wish there was an XOXO kdrama! Netflix, make it happen!

K. Imani: Yes, I agree with Jessica! Netflix, make this Kdrama happen! 

Crystal: I really enjoyed a certain scene at the swingset where they kind of go back over their initial encounter. It’s super sweet. Or maybe the sharing of the macaron. Food is often a part of the best scenes. 

Audrey: There were so many sweet, romantic scenes in XOXO. I absolutely adored their meetings at the clinic Halmeoni was staying at–it was nice to see them start relaxing around each other and be more themselves when they didn’t have to worry about their classmates. I think XOXO would be such a fun book to adapt into a kdrama. One of the first kdramas I watched was Dream High, which was set in a performing arts high school, so an adaptation of XOXO would fit right in! In general, it was nice to see Jenny and Jaewoo’s relationship develop past that initial meet-cute attraction and gain some real depth as the book went on.

K. Imani: As always when we end a discussion, we gotta share our recs, & what we’re looking forward to. I just finished Blackout (look for my review next week) and am looking forward to  Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko. The sequel to The Good Luck Girls is also out, so I’ll be getting my hands on that one soon. To stay on theme, what Kdramas are you watching or KPop songs stuck in your head? I’m in between Kdramas so I could use a recommendation :-). 

Jessica: Ohmygosh, there is so much I’m looking forward to reading. Right now, the books that are burning a hole in my TBR pile are: Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko (the sequel to Raybearer!!), How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, and Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta. As for the kpop song that’s dominating my playlist right now, it’s definitely Butter by BTS — specifically the Hotter remix which is 🔥🔥🔥

Crystal: I have a TBR that is out of control. I just finished So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow and I can’t rave about it enough. It comes out on Sept. 7 along with another one in the Remix series that I am really excited about, A Clash of Steel by C.B. Lee. It’s a remix of Treasure Island and if Morrow’s book was any indication, the series is going to be one I really enjoy. Another I’m excited about is (Me) Moth if only for the gorgeous cover. It also helps that I gravitate towards novels-in-verse. From Little Tokyo, With Love, Blackout, and Hani and Ishu’s Guide to Fake Dating are also on my list. As for K-dramas, Hospital Playlist is what has me  waiting every week. I usually don’t watch dramas until all of their episodes are out, but this is the second season and I just couldn’t wait. As for K-pop, I actually have Girls’ Generation songs going through my head because while I was reading the ARC of Idol Gossip, I listened to the K-pop playlist that Alexandra Leigh Young made back when she did a podcast about the K-pop industry. Several Girls’ Generation songs are there and brought back memories of when my youngest child was in middle school and used to play their music in the house and the car often enough for me to learn the lyrics. 

Audrey: I just finished reading Mercury Boys by Chandra Prasad (review on Friday!), and I have my eye on All These Bodies by Kendare Blake, The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker, and Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier. As far as kdramas go, I second Crystal’s recommendation for Hospital Playlist–I just finished watching the first season and am about to start on the second. It is a comforting show about five friends who are doctors and occasionally play in a band together for fun. I’ve also recently enjoyed Mine (rich people melodrama/thriller–if you’re looking for more LGBTQIA representation in kdramas, one of the protagonists is a lesbian), Kingdom: Ashin of the North (prologue to Kingdom’s zombies in the Joseon dynasty), and The Guest (people team up to hunt down the demon that killed their families). 

If you’ve had the chance to read XOXO, please join in the discussion below! We’d love to hear what you think.