You can just tell from the title that this is going to be a ridiculous show, but it’s also a 2019 offering co-produced by Netflix, so I figured it might have some of the modernity of Hello, My Twenties (still my favourite K-drama). Romance is a Bonus Book is really enjoyable and fairly modern, but it does get cheesy and a little over-earnest at times.
The show is set in a small-ish literary publisher in Seoul, which had obvious appeal for me. There’s some fairly realistic stuff about how books are published – including a heartbreaking scene of lorry-loads of remaindered books getting pulped – and plenty of passionate speeches about the importance of books. I really liked most of the workplace stuff, but it’s still a K-drama so of course at heart this is a romance.
Episode one opens with a flashback to our lead character Kang Dan-i (Lee Na-yeong) getting jitters on her wedding day. She turns for advice to her close friend Cha Eun-ho (Lee Jong-suk – who was also the male lead in Pinocchio) who is clearly trying his best not to admit that he’s in love with her and would like nothing better than to run away with her. The level of cheese was pretty high here, certainly comparable with Uncontrollably Fond, and I was pretty glad when Dan-i returned to her wedding and the narrative cut to 12 years later.
While this show does buck some of the more negative K-drama trends, the set-up is a very typical one. Dan-i is in a bad place – working part-time as a cleaner, living in a condemned building without water or electricity, struggling to pay her daughter’s boarding-school fees. It turns out that she had a briefly successful career in advertising before choosing to be a stay-at-home mum, but since getting divorced she receives no alimony and no advertising agency will employ her after such a long career break. Her only friend is Eun-ho, to whom she has confessed none of these troubles.
Eun-ho, conversely, is successful in every way. He’s a bestselling author and one of the founders of a publishing company as well as a lecturer in literature. He has a fabulous house, plenty of interest from women, and an ego to match. He’s self-centred enough that it is believable that he has managed not to notice Dan-i’s dire straits and indeed when she finds herself homeless and shoeless in a rainstorm, it is another man who comes to her rescue.
Enter Ji Seo-jun (Wi Ha-joon), a book designer who finds Dan-i when he’s walking his dog (I am now convinced that in K-drama, a man who owns a dog is always outwardly stand-offish but at heart a total softie). While she does turn to Eun-ho for help eventually, he is initially reluctant where Seo-jun is the epitome of the shining white knight. But Dan-i wants to sort herself out and takes the risk of omitting details from her CV to get a job at Eun-ho’s company. She throws herself with gusto into every menial task she is given and soon gets to know all the other staff in the editorial and marketing departments – including the woman who has been casually spending the night with Eun-ho, Song Hae-rin (Jeong Eu-gene), who is a frustrating rival to have in love because she’s fricking adorable.
The workplace drama was the part of the show I really enjoyed, possibly because it was written better than the romance. Or possibly the chemistry between the four leads worked when they were playing friends, but didn’t successfully transfer to a believable romantic chemistry. Or maybe it was to do with the directing, which definitely leaned towards a level of artifice at key moments that took me right back to Boys Over Flowers. (It also shared that show’s tendency for OTT fashions, which I did sometimes find distracting.)
There are some oddities about Romance is a Bonus Book that I wasn’t sure how to react to. The second scene of the first episode turns into a song and dance number, which honestly delighted me, but it never happened again. At the end of every episode there’s a series of screenshots from the show with lines written on them voicing characters’ thoughts in prose that is painfully cringeworthy. (Which is a shame because the show also includes lots of excerpts from fake novels and poetry collections and those are largely well written.)
Overall this is sweet and light, with a sense of fun and of course a reverence for books and stories. I appreciate having a female lead who is 40 (playing 37) and the main narrative being about her finding a new career. There were some overarching mysteries that were intriguing and resolved nicely, and the wider cast of characters were fun and varied. I really liked that most scenes outside of the office take place in a small neighbourhood that you get to know and love. There is also a brief but well-handled portrayal of mental illness and an even briefer positive portrayal of a gay couple. You’d think that wasn’t something to shout about in 2019, but from my experience and background reading about K-drama, it’s worth giving props for.
But it’s disappointing to see the same old male–female power dynamic yet again (i.e. he has all the power and never wants for anything, while she has nothing and must endure a series of trials). And it was also annoying that Eun-ho’s massive ego didn’t get properly checked. Lee Jong-suk can clearly act, but too often in this he looked like a smug asshole far too aware of his good looks. Considering some of the extremely cheesy “romantic” scenes, I suspect this is the fault of the director. It’s a shame because I know from Pinocchio that he can do all the romantic stuff convincingly. Lee Na-yeong, I should add, was excellent and I will certainly look out for her other work.