I don’t know what it is about Noona Romances (Korean dramas where the woman in the main pairing is older than the guy), but they’re frighteningly effective at reducing me to a quivering puddle of girlish sighs and swoons.
And I’m a grown woman!
Maybe it’s because they’re generally more nuanced, and the problems plaguing our leading couple reach beyond the guy being popular and sought after by every girl in school.
There are higher stakes and long-lasting consequences.
And that’s exactly where we begin with Romance is a Bonus Book (aka Love Is a Bonus Book); a breezy, sentimental drama about second chances starring Lee Jong-suk and Lee Na-young.
Lee Jong-suk plays Cha Eun-ho, a young, successful author who also happens to be editor-in-chief at a publishing company called Gyeoroo. Lee Na-young plays Kang Dan-i, a childhood friend several years his senior whose fallen on hard times due to her divorce, inability to find a job, and newly minted status as a single mom. Dan-i was once a superstar in the marketing world, but gave it all up to take care of her family.
Now that she wants back in, she faces age discrimination (Honestly, how can you blame someone for aging?) and malicious comments during interviews about being out of the workforce for too long.
Sounds bleak, doesn’t it?
Well, what I adore about this drama is that it’s not! Dan-i is resourceful and refuses to stay down. This is largely thanks to screenwriter Jung Hyun-jung’s character-building and propensity to comment on the social issues women face in South Korea. She incorporates them into her dramas (I’m looking at you I Need Romance 3), but has a way of doing it without coming off preachy.
In the first few episodes, we learn a lot about Dan-i’s day-to-day life. Her mornings are spent cleaning a sauna she’s too qualified to work part-time at, and her afternoons consist of endless interviews for jobs in her field. We also learn the specifics of why her life is the way it is. The loser we see her marry at the beginning of the first episode has bankrupted them trying to keep his business afloat and cheated while he was at it.
A year later, and Dan-i isn’t even bitter. She’s just trying to get by and support her teenage daughter who goes to boarding school overseas.
There’s something honest and relatable about Lee Na-young’s portrayal of Dan-i, so you can’t help but feel for her. Deeply. When she breaks down in the dark, empty house she used to live in before the divorce while picturing how happy she once was, I teared up. Then she falls asleep and wakes up to the sound of heavy machinery and a demolition crew outside. She was secretly living in the house with no electricity or running water, but is now fully homeless./3/Board/List">Image courtesy of tvN
Which isn’t as bad as it sounds, because now the narrative has given her an excuse to move in with Eun-ho AKA Lee Jong-suk; the man whose smile could power a small city. If you think this is going to be a big change for Dan-i, then you’re wrong, because she’s practically been living at his beautiful, spacious home anyway! She actually got rid of his housekeeper and has been the one cooking and cleaning, so she could earn the wage instead. Remember when I said Dan-i was resourceful? Yeah, I wasn’t kidding.
The plot really jumps into motion when Gyeoroo (the company Eun-ho works for) holds an open interview; meaning anyone can apply. Even people who only finished high school. Suddenly Dan-i’s college degree and accomplishments in the marketing world disappear, and she’s sitting in front of a stunned Eun-ho at the interview applying for a demeaning, entry-level position.
Which she gets.
Now everything is out in the open, and Eun-ho finally realizes just how far his closest friend has fallen. As a character, Eun-ho is mature (most of the time) and supportive. You can actively see the different kinds of love he feels for Dan-i thrumming beneath his skin in almost every scene.
That’s the beautiful thing about Lee Jong-suk’s acting. Even though people question his versatility, he never fails to make you believe his total adoration of whoever is acting opposite him. In real life, Lee Na-young is eleven years older, and they still have chemistry.
It’s not the explosive kind, but the warm, oozing kind that feels like hot chocolate sliding down your throat on a cold day. Even how Dan-i and Eun-ho meet is adorable. She saves him from being hit by a car when he’s a wee lad, and while recuperating in the hospital, she forces him to be her lackey. Eun-ho buys her snacks and brings her manhwa and other books to read. They bond over them and become inseparable. Throughout the series, we’re even treated to flashbacks of them during various stages of their friendship. That’s why it’s so satisfying when they finally realize there’s attraction lurking between the bonds of a relationship they thought had been finalized by time.
In fact, by the time they kiss it already feels like canon.
Aside from the formidable acting and dreamy tone of Romance Is a Bonus Book, it also boasts a colorful supporting cast. At the forefront is our second male lead, Ji Seo-joon (played by relative newcomer Wi Ha-joon). He’s another younger man vying for Dan-i attention. They banter and talk about books because he’s a popular cover designer, but there’s nothing compelling making you want to root for him and Dan-i. He’s just a cute stranger that lent her his umbrella and returned a shoe she’d lost. With Seo-joon, Dan-i got to feel like Cinderella for a little while, but there was no great love lost, so as the viewer you’re not really made to feel bad when she eventually chooses Eun-ho.
I do love the fact that Seo-joon got to have a little secret that added an interesting element of mystery to the drama. He turns out to be the illegitimate son of a wildly popular author named Kang Byeong-jun who disappeared after giving his publishing rights to Gyeoroo. This is essentially the B plot of the drama, and about halfway we find out that Kang Byeong-jun is Eun-ho’s mentor. He disappeared from the public eye to hide his impending Alzheimer’s, and Eun-ho is secretly taking care of him in a quaint countryside house.
In the end, Eun-ho facilitates a meeting between Seo-joon and Byeong-jun, and Seo-joon gets to see his father before the Alzheimer’s takes him.
The last thing that makes Romance Is a Bonus Book so good are all of Eun-ho and Dan-i’s colleagues at Gyeoroo. Some are zany, some are tyrannical, and some coast on their wealth. But they’re all three-dimensional. They’re fleshed out and have their own backstories and motivations. You end up shipping characters you didn’t think you cared about and liking characters you started out hating.
One of those characters is Go Yoo-sun, Gyeoroo’s second-in-command, and Dan-i’s direct boss. Remember how much you hated Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada? Take that hatred and multiply it by a thousand, and that’s how I felt about Ms. Go. She started out so cold and seemed to want to make sure Dan-i stayed in an entry-level role. But once again, through masterful character-building, you end up finding out she’s actually fair and doesn’t really have it out for Dan-i. She’s just a stickler for the rules.
Even the dreaded second female lead ended up being a sweetheart. Dan-i and Song Hae-rin (played by Jung Yoo-jin), one of the senior editors at Gyeoroo become allies after working on a difficult project together. She tries to give Dan-i opportunities to grow and doesn’t try to destroy her even though Hae-rin has had a crush on Eun-ho for years.
Of course, the inevitable happens and everyone at the company finds out Dan-i lied about not going to college and having no experience. There’s a big fallout, and she does the noble drama sacrifice and quits. But it’s short-lived. Ms. Go (shockingly) refers her to a job at another publishing company, and after some time has passed, Dan-i ends up right back at Gyeoroo in a position more suitable for her skills and experience.
It turns out everyone misses her and the hard-working spirit she displayed every day. The drama then establishes that Gyeoroo is her home and everyone there, including Eun-ho, is her family.
In fact, my only criticism of this drama is the pacing. So much information is given to us at the beginning, by the end it starts dragging a bit. None of the conflicts are particularly shocking either since the show aims to portray everyday life.
If you’re only into dramas where there’s a big reveal at the end of every episode, Romance Is a Bonus Book may not be for you. But if you enjoy soothing, character-driven narratives or just want to watch a woman reclaim a life she thought was lost, then you’re in for a beautiful journey.