Books: Stone House on Jeju Island: Book Reviews

Lisa See, New York Times bestselling author of several novels, including The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane; Shanghai Girls; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Her next novel, The Island of Sea Women, takes place in Jeju Island, South Korea.  

Have you ever fantasized about going to an island and starting a new life? Brenda Sunoo and her husband did just that when they left Southern California for Jeju Island off the tip of South Korea. Real life isn’t paradise, though, and the dark history of Jeju mirrors some of Brenda’s own losses. This is a lovely book filled with wonderful encounters, moments of self-examination and spirituality, and the amusing—but sometimes frustrating—quirks of rebuilding a traditional stone house. If you loved A Year in Provence or the fictional Stones for Ibarra, Stone House on Jeju Island is a must-read. 

Paula Gianturco, author of Wonder Girls: Changing Our World and Grandmother Power—A Global Phenomenon. 

Brenda Paik Sunoo’s book, Stone House on Jeju Island, documents her transition to her ancestral homeland. It is poetic, touching, funny, insightful, inspiring, and, thanks to her full-color photographs, beautiful. 

She describes building a house in a traditional Korean fishing village (“A memory is embedded in every corner of our house.”), learning the language (“the market is an interactive…dictionary”), and making new friends (eating with people who also experienced losses, she writes, “We could taste each others sorrow.”) 

Ultimately, you will celebrate when she and her husband learn to live and “let the wind blow and the land breathe.” 

Sharman Apt Russell, winner of the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing for 2016, author of the forthcoming Within Our Grasp: Feeding the World’s Children for a Better and Greener Future (Pantheon Books, 2020). 

A wonderfully charming, insightful, and hopeful book about possibilities. I am not likely to build a traditional stone house in a coastal fishing village near the Yellow Sea, so instead I will follow Brenda Sunoo—a wise and lyrical guide. This is the best of travel books, intimate and compelling, with a dash of adventurous home construction!  

Kenyon S. Chan, Chancellor Emeritus of University of Washington, psychologist and former editor of Rice Magazine.  

Sunoo challenges us to reimagine our definition of “home.” This smooth and lyrical storytelling of a Korean American’s search for her ancestral roots reminds us that home is in our heart and spirit. She is the quintessential example of a transnational human being of the 21st century who knows no boundaries and invites us in for a peek. 

Judith Van Hoorn, Ph.D. and former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Korea from 1967-1969; Professor Emerita at the University of the Pacific, and a past president of the American Psychological Association Division of Peace Psychology. 

An extraordinary book, wise and wonderful. Brenda Paik Sunoo uses her gifts as a writer and visual artist to piece together a tapestry showing how to take risks as a senior couple, and be fully present in each moment. It is Sunoo’s poignant love story about creating a new and healing life in one of Jeju Island’s traditional fishing village. Inspired by the granny free divers—she envisions a journey of aging purposefully while “finding the time to slow down and inhale the lustre of another full moon.”  

Noah benShea, philosopher and international best-selling author of We are All Jacob's Children and Jacob the Baker 

Every now and then you are blessed to read a book that simultaneously lifts and quiets your soul. And makes you feel that you are a better person for having turned the pages.  

Brenda Paik Sunoo’s latest effort, Stone House on Jeju Island, is truly captured in the subtitle, Improvising Life Under a Healing Moon. Every moment we arrive at in life is the first time we have been in that moment, and every act in our life is in some way an improvisation. This truth is laid out beautifully for the reader in this book that like the copper bell in a Buddhist monastery vibrates long after it has stopped ringing. I will never live in the land of eighty year old women who dive to depths I will not know, and I will not in my seventh decade build a wind swept home on a volcanic mountain overlooking the sea. But in reading this book I will viscerally know this experience, and i am spirit grateful. Ms. Sunoo’s tale is told with great simplicity, honesty, and depth. This is the work of a quiet master. I was touched to read. I am sure I will not be alone.  

Kang Young-pil, executive vice president of the Korea Foundation 

This book intimately weaves together the Korean American author’s personal experiences of settling and finding consolation on Jeju Island with sketches of the island’s history, culture, and lifestyle. There’s a rush of publications on Jeju lately, but only a few fully capture the island’s charms from a stranger’s perspective. This book is Brenda Paik Sunoo’s second book on Jeju to follow Moon Tides, and as a Jeju Islander myself, I applaud her affection for the island.