54 pages 1 hour read

Won-pyung Sohn, Transl. Joosun Lee


Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Almond is a novel by Won-Pyung Sohn, translated from the original Korean by Sandy Joosun Lee. It is Won-Pyung Sohn’s debut novel and her best-known work, particularly outside of South Korea. Almond is a contemporary bildungsroman centered on the life of Yunjae, a boy with alexithymia (the inability to identify or feel emotions), and his struggle to understand his own inner life, particularly in the face of intense tragedy and trauma. First published in South Korea in 2016, it was translated into English in 2020. The novel experienced a boom in worldwide popularity after it was recommended by K-pop band BTS. It received the Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction soon after publication. The subject matter reflects Sohn’s degrees in social science and philosophy. While Sohn herself does not identify as neurodivergent, the novel deals heavily with neurodivergent issues, particularly social acceptance and belonging.

This study guide uses the HarperVia paperback, published in 2021 and translated by Sandy Joosun-Lee.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of graphic violence, trauma and grief, bullying, and depictions of neurological and neurodivergent conditions and the societal misunderstandings that accompany them. Some readers may find the novel’s depiction of alexithymia inaccurate.

Plot Summary

The protagonist, Yunjae, describes the first signs of his alexithymia at age six when he watched older boys beat a boy to death in the street and felt no fear. He cannot get a local shopkeeper to believe him about the beaten boy’s condition; the boy, the shopkeeper’s son, later dies. More incidents occur where Yunjae has no emotional reaction. His grandmother calls him her “adorable monster,” but he has little idea why.

Doctors eventually diagnose Yunjae with alexithymia due to his underdeveloped amygdala. His mother feeds him almonds constantly, hoping it will stimulate his amygdala as he grows. To teach him how to function as a “normal person,” she writes notes and reminders of how to act and tapes them all over their house.

Yunjae only met his grandmother, who now lives with them, when he was seven, as she and his mother had not spoken after his mother eloped with his father, who died before Yunjae’s birth in an accident. His grandmother moved in with his mother to help them survive, and they opened a used bookstore.

The family goes out to celebrate Yunjae’s 15th birthday. Outside the restaurant they visit, a violent man attacks anyone who smiles. He doesn’t reach Yunjae, but the attack sends Yunjae’s mother into a coma with little hope of recovery. His grandmother and several other onlookers die, as does the man. Yunjae shows no emotion at the funeral.

Yunjae attempts to keep his own life and the bookstore going while visiting his mother in the hospital. He gets help from a friend of his mother’s named Dr. Shim. He enters high school, and his homeroom teacher, having learned of the tragedy, announces it in front of his entire class, leading to his ostracization.

An older man, Professor Yun, finds Yunjae and asks him to pose as his son for his dying wife’s comfort. Their real son disappeared when he was young, and while they recently found him, he is a “delinquent,” and the man believes he can bring no comfort to his wife. Yunjae goes to meet the man’s wife in the hospital; she greets him as Leesu, fully believing him to be her actual son. The woman dies some days later, and Yunjae attends the funeral. Professor Yun’s real son, who now goes by Gon, appears late at the funeral and Yunjae recognizes him as a new boy in his class.

The next day, Gon begins to torment Yunjae, but Yunjae’s lack of reaction bothers him. He threatens him with a note insisting they fight by the incinerator. Gon beats Yunjae up but gets frustrated when Yunjae doesn’t react. Yunjae tells him that he cannot give him what he wants. Professor Yun tries to broker an apology between the two boys, but eventually leaves them to settle the issue. Rather than settling things, Yunjae provokes Gon by imitating him, and Gon has a furious outburst. Yunjae watches Professor Yun slap Gon as punishment.

Yunjae decides to get closer to Gon to understand the world better. Gon visits the bookstore, and they talk. They ignore each other at school, but Gon continues to visit the bookstore and criticize the selections. They slowly become friends throughout the visits. Gon tries to provide Yunjae with “empathy training” by killing a butterfly slowly to get his reaction, but all it does is make Gon himself upset. He refuses to come back to the bookstore for some time.

Yunjae goes to visit Gon at his own house and Gon finally asks Yunjae what his mother—Gon’s mother—was like. Yunjae tells him, and Gon cries.

The new semester starts and Yunjae develops a crush on a girl in his class named Dora. She is a runner on the unofficial track team and ignores most people. Yunjae decides to close the bookstore and runs into Dora in the library when he donates some books; they discuss her running, which is her only passion. She visits the bookstore, and Yunjae, taking Dr. Shim’s advice, tries to figure out whether he has a crush on her or not.

Yunjae does not tell Gon about Dora, and Gon begins to spend time with delinquents in rougher parts of the neighborhood. Dora and Yunjae kiss one day, which Gon sees through the window; he walks away after Dora leaves.

On a field trip, Gon is falsely accused of stealing money from the trip’s funds. In rage afterward, Gon destroys their classroom, and Dora appears and calls him a piece of “trash.” Afterward, Gon and Yunjae talk; Gon is furious about Dora and says he intends to leave so he can become stronger.

Nobody is concerned for Gon except his father and Yunjae. Desperate to apologize to Gon, Yunjae decides to track Gon down. Dora tries to stop him, but Yunjae explains to her that even if he couldn’t find an explanation for his life through Gon, he found Gon, which was enough.

Yunjae goes through Steamed Bun, a friend of Gon’s, and tracks Gon to Steel Wire, a dangerous criminal. He finds Gon’s beaten, barely conscious body in Steel Wire’s basement. Steel Wire arrives and orders Gon to kill Yunjae. Gon cannot do it, and Steel Wire decides to see how much pain Yunjae is willing to take for Gon. Yunjae is beaten nearly to unconsciousness and then takes Steel Wire’s knife for Gon. Gon cradles his body and cries over him, begging him to live, and when Gon’s tears fall on his face, Yunjae feels emotion.

Yunjae recovers in the hospital after the incident. Dr. Shim brings him a surprise—his mother, recovering from her coma. Yunjae cries and laughs for the first time with her. In a brief epilogue, Yunjae says he has graduated high school and is going to visit Gon, just because he can and because they are friends.