More than a noona romance, Romance Is A Bonus Book is a Kdrama with heart. A rom-com that’s more than the romance, but about the struggles of being a woman.
I was looking out for a new drama to start on Netflix since I had just completed an assignment from uni and was in need of a break to let my mind relax and die a little. I had seen RIABB floating around Netflix for a while but it wasn’t until I saw kfangurl’s‘s review on this show and seeing that she really liked it, thought I should give it a try.
And I am SO glad I did.
To be honest, I was never a fan of noona romances and especially with k-dramas. At first glance, RIABB reminded me a little of Something In The Rain (Pretty Noona Buys Me Food) which I eventually dropped because it was getting boring. But RIABB exceeded way past my expectations and got me hooked. I kept thinking about the show when I’m not watching. And when I am, I couldn’t stop. It also just so happened that I’m recovering from a really bad flu which gives me an excuse to spend an entire day bingeing on Kdramas without guilt. I definitely made good use of my sick break with this show.
Warning: minor spoilers ahead
I just love Dan-i (Lee Na Young) and ALL the characters in the show. Well, okay not all. I didn’t like the other editor who tried to frame Dan-i at the end. And Eun Ho (Lee Jong Suk) kind of annoyed me a little with his insensitivity towards Dan-i. But overall, I loved how the show veered away from any unnecessary angst and instead delved right into the struggles that each character faces.
The overall tone is feel-good and warm, with a bit of whimsy and quirks. The show doesn’t forget to explore real issues that women in the work place face. But it avoids being preachy and portrays these issues with just the right amount of subtlety and heart. I quite liked that the romance is not exactly the main focus of the show nor is it portrayed as the solution to all of Dan-i’s struggles. Sure, Eun Ho helped out a lot (so did everyone else) but it was Dan-i who consciously made decisions for herself and worked hard to earn her rewards.
Also, it’s nice when more matured characters are portrayed according to their age. Lee Na Young strikes a nice balance with a bit of quirkiness, cheer and occasionally expresses her displeasure especially when Eun-Ho goes too far with his teasing. It was quite funny when she proclaims out loud in front of Eun Ho that she hasn’t gotten laid in a while. HAHA.
Lee Jong Suk’s acting has improved GREATLY since I last saw him in Secret Garden as the expressionless young musician (wow that’s a long time ago). He plays cute and boyish really well. Especially when he’s calling Dan-i noona, it makes me want to pat him on the head like he’s my little brother.
I wasn’t particularly invested in this OTP like I was in Something In The Rain. The relationship felt too much like a brother-sister relationship for me to believe in the romance. Even when they got together, I still found it hard to get into the OTP. Sure, Lee Na Young and Lee Jong Suk have some pretty great chemistry but…it didn’t feel like the romantic kind. Although, the show’s portrayal of romance between the OTP is definitely a lot healthier as compared to some other dramas that I’ve seen over the years.
There were times when I thought Eun-ho treated Dan-i with blatant disrespect, considering how much older she is. But then there were also times when Dan-i fought back, indicating that he had crossed the line and he would back down. It’s a healthy dynamic that suits them as a couple. Dan-i lets him be the childish younger guy and say whatever he wants, knowing its out of care and not malice, but asserts her stand when she thinks its too much. And also, Eun Ho doesn’t try too hard to force Dan-i to face her feelings. He plays around with subtle messages, hidden meanings and allusions until Dan-i finally gets it. Then he quietly wins her heart through the traditional way, all the while playfully teasing her about her feelings for him. This, would probably the closest to what a healthy dynamic should look like.
But what I think makes this show really unique is the way it doesn’t waste any opportunity to comment on an issue, even if its something that’s treated as escapist entertainment. There were a few times when Eun-ho had planned to sabotage Seo Joon and Dan-i’s blossoming romance, but ultimately decided against it since it would make him a loser. Finally!! The show tackles the topic of romance and courtship with just enough maturity to not become tropey (or even toxic) while keeping it angst-light yet funny.
A friend was lamenting how the dramas of the old days (think Boys Over Flowers, Hana Kimi etc) had really good second leads unlike dramas these days. RIABB has brought back the second-lead syndrome in me but without all that unnecessary angst. In fact, I’m feeling the second-lead syndrome for both Seo Joon (Wi Ha Joon) and Hae Rin (Jung Yoo Jin). Which also makes the inevitable heartbreak a lot sadder *cries*
I was rooting for Seo Joon the moment he met Dan-i, which came as a surprise for me. I’m normally not into cheesy love-at-first-sight moments. But there was this subtle chemistry that sparked between Seo Joon and Dan-i (no one seems to agree with me though…so maybe it’s just my imagination?) that caught my attention. As the show went on and Seo Joon started falling in love with her, I find myself wishing so hard that a miracle would happen.
Also…Wi Ha Joon played the angsty little bro in Something In The Rain?! No wonder I found him so familiar!
It’s interesting that the writer made Seo Joon and Eun Ho similar in their age so that the competition isn’t really about the age but rather, about who Dan-i eventually falls in love with. Also, it kind of normalises the whole noona relationship in a way since it’s not just one, but two younger guys who are chasing after her.
Hae Rin is my all-time favourite character in this show. Even more than I love Dan-i. But then again, I’ve always had a soft spot for lovable side characters. Hae Rin is strong, good at her job and sincere. She’s strict yet partial, and genuinely wants to be friends with Dan-i despite being love rivals. It’s so refreshing to finally see a female character who doesn’t let her unrequited feelings get in the way of genuine, female friendships. She may cry and get angry but never once did she put the blame on Dan-i. In fact, she continues to support Dan-i and stood by her side amidst everything. I think more than a friend, Hae Rin respected Dan-i as an older sister.
I thought her chemistry with Eun Ho is so palpable and I was wishing so hard that a miracle would happen and Hae Rin would end up with Eun Ho (and of course Dan-i with Seo Joon 😉). They would make such a cute couple. Somehow, Eun Ho’s smile (or Jong Suk’s?) feels more genuine when he’s around Hae Rin. Or maybe I’m just reading into things. Still, I’m happy to see who Hae Rin ends up with. It’s so so cute though. I’m glad the show didn’t leave them hanging and went all the way.
Focus on Women’s Issues
I love how the show tackles a variety of different issues that relate to women in the workplace. Similar to Something In The Rain but RIABB does it in a way that avoids being preachy by portraying these issues in a sometimes lighthearted tone and through the characters’ own struggles.
Dan-I’s Return to Work
Dan-i is a unique character to the k-drama world. Just from my own personal experience with dramas in general, portrayals of housewives usually have little to no working experience. Which makes their entry into the workplace understandably difficult but the writer’s decision to make Dan-i overqualified for the job, rather than under, not only adds to the irony of the situation but also represents a very specific demography of women. In particular,
Dan-i is unique in that not only is she extremely qualified for her job, she is also an award-winning copywriter which means she’s even good at what she does. It’s detailed writing. Since Dan-i’s background and past experiences lead to bigger turn-of-events later in the show.
Dan-i as a character then represents a specific demography of women, particularly, housewives and their struggles to return to the workforce due to their awkward positions within society. Women are expected to quit their jobs and become homemakers when married. Especially women who have children. But what happens when they lose their husbands, either through divorce or death? The situation is ironic because Dan-i’s supposed strengths – her accolades and experience – has suddenly turned into her biggest weaknesses.
In order to get into an entry-level job, Dan-i then destroys all of her certificates, experience and degrees. It is a heartbreaking moment. Years of hard work gone down the drain. But the show doesn’t linger too much on this. Dan-i herself, is able to let it all go for the sake of survival. It is only those who are willing to let go of their past achievements and humble themselves that ultimately survive.
When Dan-i finally gets the job (by pretending to be a high school graduate, oh the irony), the show is only just beginning. Despite her previous experience, she finds herself navigating a whole new environment that has moved on while she was being cooped up at home. I loved the details in which the writer sprinkles in, like Dan-i writing blurbs for the new book cover only to be rejected for being too old-fashioned or when Manager Seo introduces to her books on digital marketing. It really highlights how much the world has moved on while she was stuck at home. Even her clothes – monochrome pantsuits – is so obviously outdated compared to the bright colours and quirky style of the trendy office-wear worn by her colleagues.
Marriage vs Career
The show begins with Dan-i running away from her own wedding. Though she eventually returns with Eun-ho’s encouragement. Fast-forward seven years later and Dan-i is looking for a job while secretly sleeping in her soon-to-be demolished home. I couldn’t help but wonder what would Dan-i’s life have been like if she had chosen to run away from the wedding and not come back? If she had taken up Eun Ho’s proposal to run away with him forever?
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Cues Manager Ko. The real runaway bride who never turned back. In a heartbreaking scene at Manager Ko’s apartment, she reveals that she had almost gotten married but changed her mind at the end. The result is a successful career, a PhD and an empty, messy apartment. The regret is so apparent in her expression as she wonders at what the guy might be doing and the life she might be living had she gotten married anyway. It’s an interesting scene. Women are often given such limited choices that it feels like there is only one or the other.
Manager Ko eventually bumps into her ex, who is now happily married and working as a food deliverer after his business failed. She’s now a successful career woman while her ex-fiance is deliveryman, yet he seems happy. The show seems to hint that Manager Ko does regret her decision deeply when they show her crying alone in her apartment, bare-faced and clutching her wedding portrait.
The Working Mom
Then we have Manager Seo who seems to have both.
The first time we meet Manager Seo is when she barges into the office, late for a meeting, her hair still in rollers and her makeup half-applied. She then talks about being a mom and the difficulty of juggling both. While it is all said in jest and humour, it is later revealed that whenever her son needs her, Manager Seo would lie and say that she has been in an accident. Though I’m not a working mother myself, I can already imagine the difficulties that Manager Seo and working moms around the world have had to face. Manager Seo then laments to Dan-i about how it is the mother who gets the call, never the father. It is a powerful moment as both Dan-i and Manager Seo reach a mutual understanding due to their shared experiences as mothers. Though subtle, the show lends insight to why Dan-i, who was at the top of her game, chose to leave her job in order to raise her daughter.
Marriage is also something that is touched on. Dan-i’s marriage to Dong-min robbed Dan-i of her identity. The moment when Dan-i cried and admitted that, it had been a long time since anyone called her by her name, really tugged at my heart. Later in the show, Dan-i also admitted that she was probably never in love with Dong-min but had mistaken his affections for love. It’s as if the show compared Dong-min’s treatment of Dan-i, to Eun Ho’s, just to show what love is supposed to look like. Eun Ho even made an observation that Dong-min never considered Dan-i and only thought of himself. While Eun Ho is always quietly looking out for Dan-i, trying to help her in any way that he can and always being there for her when she needed him.
The show’s exploration of Manager Bong and Manager Seo’s divorce was treated with sensitivity and nuance, as they tears down the layers behind the reason for the divorce. In the iconic scene of the three women at Manager Ko’s apartment, Manager Seo finally breaks down and laments about her frustration with her marriage. It wasn’t that Bong was a shitty husband like Dong Min, but that Seo was tired of being his wife. Bong is a good man, a good friend, a good editor and a good father. But that didn’t make him a good husband. The depth of their feelings was so painfully felt in the scene when Seo and Bong sat opposite each other in the bus, each dealing with the reality of the divorce in their own way. The contrast of Seo’s heart-wrenching cries and Bong’s defeated gaze in that single shot speaks so much with so little words.
Yet, both Seo and Bong had a mutual respect and love for each other that reflected their years of marriage, even if it ended in a divorce. When CEO Kim scolded Bong for over-helping other people at the expense of his family, Seo defended him. The mixed feelings of anger, pain and loyalty were all felt in her outburst. It this quiet bond of loyalty and understanding between the two that makes the divorce all the more heartbreaking.
I would say I was way more invested in Dan-i’s journey than her romance with Eun Ho. Which is probably what the show is really about anyway, and that is Dan-i’s journey as she fulfils her dreams. I was much more invested in the secondary couple though. They were so cute and had so much chemistry that I was already rooting for them since the first scene with just the two of them (it’s not that I’m not into noona romances…I think…).
The storytelling is detailed and very well thought-out. Details that pop out as seemingly inconsequential are gradually brought back as catalysts for even bigger things to happen. Even the smaller subplots were thoughtfully carried out with little episodes sprinkled along the way, and leading towards a satisfying ending. Dan-i’s achievements throughout the show felt organic and believable. So much so that when it hit the climax towards the end, I fast-forwarded the romantic scenes with Eun Ho just so I can find out what happens to Dan-i after.
The characters are likable and very well-written, with even the side characters having their own stories and subplots. I’m so for the workplace sismance in this show that is just not shown very often, especially in k-dramas. The way the women worked together and supported each other rather than try to tear each other down is so refreshing and a better representation of relationships between women.
The final episode was sort of a feel-good episode where loose ends are sort of tied up and everyone gets their happy end. Sad to say, it was also the most boring episode for me, personally. But could be because I had binge-watched nearly all of the episodes and took a break before coming back to watch the final episode. So it’s probably my own fault 😣
Would I recommend this show to everyone?
YES. Definitely yes. Even if you’re watching for the romance, I’d encourage you to just watch it. It’s on Netflix anyway.