Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat.
In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
The Vegetarian is told through three parts:
From here on this review will contain *spoilers*.
Part One: Told through the eyes of the very abusive and unsupportive husband of Yeong-hye (aka Mr. Cheong).
People who utter bullshit like he did truly astonish me:
“What’s wrong with your lips? Haven’t you done your makeup?”
I took my shoes off again and dragged my flustered wife, who’d already put on her coat, into the front room.
“Were you really going to go out looking like this?” The two of us were reflected in the dressing table mirror. “Do your makeup again.”
To say that I really, really disliked the husband would be an understatement.
It was also really disturbing to learn that almost everything seemed to put him into a state of sexual arousal. I mean, just listening to the voice of his sister-in-law managed to arouse him… why???
On top of that, trigger warnings for sexual assault because Yeong-hye’s husband is a piece of shit.
Right in those moments, thinking about Mr. Cheong didn’t cause me shock or confusion so much as an intense feeling of disgust. I really hope he’ll die a painful death.
We then see that this abusive asshole calls her family to inform them of Yeong-hye’s new eating habits. By this point, they decide that the best way to help is to physically force her into eating meat again, which absolutely made my blood boil.
“That her father, the Vietnam War hero, had actually struck his rebellious daughter in the face and physically forced a lump of meat into her mouth, that was something else.”
And the moment when she’d tried to take her own life in front of her family had been a turning point.
“Nobody can help me. Nobody can save me. Nobody can make me breathe.”
Part 2: The narrative switches to In-hye’s husband (set 2 years later).
This part was a little disturbing & overly sexual …
Seriously though, what’s up with the men in this book??? We have abusive husband #1 (Mr. Cheong) fantasizing about one sister and abusive husband #2 fantasizing about the other sister… why….The only part of me that was satisfied was when I read that Yeong-hye got her divorce from Mr. Cheong. Thank the stars for that silver lining.
But I truly felt sorry that In-hye ended up with such a fucker for a husband. And when she had to see him with her sister… it still hurts. But she handled the situation to the best of her abilities.
“She cut him off abruptly, raising her voice. “I’ve called the emergency services.”
“What?” He took a step toward her, incomprehension furrowing his brow.
She backed away. “You and Yeong-hye are both clearly in need of medical treatment.”
Several seconds passed before he grasped that she was in earnest. “What are you saying? That you’re committing me to a mental hospital?”
Just then a rustling sound came from over by the mattress. Both he and his wife held their breath. Yeong-hye pushed the sheet aside and stood up, stark naked. He saw that tears were streaming from his wife’s eyes.
“Bastard,” she muttered, swallowing her sobs. “Just look at her…she clearly isn’t well. In her mind. How could you?”
Part 2 ends with three paramedics rushing into the flat, concealing straitjackets and protective equipment. Again, a disturbingly dark ending…
Part 3: Told from the perspective of In-hye while visiting her sister in a psychiatric hospital.
As the story progresses, Yeong-hye became more and more taciturn. She refuses to eat, drink or take care of herself. And it was hard reading about her harming herself like that, especially watching it through In-hye’s eyes.
“In-hye couldn’t hold herself back any longer. “You!” she yelled. “I’m acting like this because I’m afraid you’re going to die!”
Yeong-hye turned her head and stared blankly at In-hye, as though the latter were not her sister but a complete stranger. After a while, the question came.
“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
I’m still not entirely sure what ended up with her in those last few pages, but I’m too emotionally scarred to reread it.
The only silver lining in this part (for me) was reading how strong In-hye held herself to be and not cave in, especially when abusive husband #2 called her in desperation to see the family.
“She’d always known how sensitive he was. A man whose self-esteem was so easily wounded, who quickly became frustrated if the situation didn’t go his way. She knew that if she refused him this one more time, it would probably be a very long time before he contacted her again.
Even though she was aware of this, no, because she was aware of it, she hung up without answering.”
“I don’t know you,” she muttered, tightening her grip on the receiver, which she’d hung back in the cradle but was still clutching. “So there’s no need for us to forgive each other. Because I don’t know you.”
When the phone rang again she pulled out the cord. The next morning she connected it up again but, as she’d predicted, he didn’t call again.”
I felt such a surge of power at her actions. YES.
In-hye definitely didn’t give herself enough credit in this part. She’s a single mother with a hard-working business and still takes the time to visit and take care of her younger sister to the best of her abilities… that in itself is already a great deal of work. She shouldn’t be so hard on herself.
Though this novel is short, it managed to feel like a lifetime packed into less than 200 pages – which I’m not sure whether I liked or not.
But I do know this: I left this novel feeling confused, tired and drained, which I don’t find the best things to feel after finishing a story.
However, the one thing that continues to perplex me is the fact that everyone in this book refers to Yeong-hye as a vegetarian, yet she mentions multiple times that she won’t be eating either eggs or dairy products…
“Just make me some fried eggs. I’m really tired today. I didn’t even get to have a proper lunch.”
“I threw the eggs out as well.”
“And I’ve given up milk too.”
“This is unbelievable. You’re telling me not to eat meat?”
“I couldn’t let those things stay in the fridge. It wouldn’t be right.”
And she even doesn’t wear leather, so why isn’t she labeled as vegan?
“The thing is, she’s stopped eating meat.”
“What did you say?”
“She’s stopped eating any kind of meat at all, even fish—all she lives on is vegetables. It’s been several months now.”
I cannot rest peacefully until I know the reason for this…