*Please note, this is my review for the entire series. If I review each volume separately, I will just say a lot of the same things three times.*
Summary: A girl comes of age in rural Korea. Ehwa, the daughter of a single mother who owns a tavern, learns about all things intimate as she grows from a little girl of seven to a young bride of seventeen. Her mother guides her into the confusing world of becoming a grown woman with love and compassion, all while fending off well-intentioned but lewd comments and managing her own romance with a traveling artist.
Plot: The plot is mainly a vehicle to facilitate the author's poetic musings on human growth and relationships. The series opens with a picture of two beetles mating and never lets up. Ehwa falls in love the first time, and we have musings on puberty. Ehwa falls in love again quickly (the first one was a monk...it didn't work out), and we have musings on unrequited love. Ehwa falls in love the third and final time, and we have musings on marriage. When she's not falling in love, Ehwa is asking questions about her developing body and how babies are made, accidentally happening across naked boys, and learning to masturbate. We even get a couple of cutaways to Ehwa's first love becoming a man (nocturnal emission alert), as well as a brief plot twist involving an old man with erectile dysfunction.
A couple of major events do occur, such as Ehwa's fiancee going to sea at one point, but for the most part, Ehwa and her mother respond to everything by having another long talk. This series is very short on action.
Characters: The characterization may seem, how do I put this, culturally objectionable to some American readers. In Ehwa's world, a girl is raised to be a wife and mother, period. She has no other choices, and finding a good husband is her highest priority. Add the fact that this series is primarily a musing on love and sex, and the outcome is a female cast completely obsessed with men. If you absolutely must have a female lead who exhibits feminist tendencies, you will struggle with Ehwa's constant obsession with falling in love and her mother's years-long yearning for her often-absent lover.
The characters do have their own personalities, though. Ehwa is curious but a little shy and snobbish, while her unkempt best friend is more freewheeling and a bit vulgar. Ehwa's mother is dreamy and wistful, always musing on the bittersweet nature of being a woman. The most frequently recurring side characters are a pair of old men in the tavern who provide lewd comic relief.
Art: Beautiful! While sometimes the incessant talking weighed on me, the drawings in this series were stunning. For the most part, the talking panels are quite spare, but occasionally the author slips in a full to two-page scene of pastoral Korea, exquisitely detailed and evocative. While the characters' features are kept simple, each is distinct. I especially enjoyed how Ehwa looked exactly the same, yet completely different as she grew up, just as a real child changes. She also resembled her mother strongly but not enough to create confusion.
At times, the sexual imagery and symbolism is very well done. Shoes are used to symbolize relationships often. At other times, the imagery is a bit over-the-top, such as Ehwa's new husband romping in a small pool surrounded by rushes with two curving hills behind it, and a mortar plunging into a pestle. Those choices took the love scene in the end from romantic to corny.
Writing/Dialogue: The writing has strong poetic elements, especially when Ehwa's mother goes on a tangent about the heart of a woman. It is dense for comic/manga writing, but flowing and pleasant. Readers who prefer graphic novels because of the usual fast pace may find this series painfully slow going. Much discussion centers around flowers, which symbolize the different phases of Ehwa's life and loves.
While the writing is beautiful, there is much waxing on about the beauty and wonder of becoming a woman and nothing about the awkwardness and suffering of it. I and many other women I know would not relate to this version of growing up at all. Of course, the author is male and hasn't directly experienced menstruation, so I will give him some slack there, but the scene where the teenage girls learn about masturbation together seemed too much like a male fantasy.
Ending: Surprise! Ehwa gets married! Actually, it isn't a surprise, to the point that my mentioning it here isn't even a spoiler. The reader always knows Ehwa is going to finish the series as a bride. The only missing element is the name of the groom. The wrap-up of the romance between Ehwa's mother and the paintbrush man is slightly more satisfying because it didn't feel as predestined. However, the reader may feel that this wrap-up is contrived and could have happened much sooner, rather than spending ten years in the making.
What more did I want?: I wanted the author to acknowledge that puberty is hard, awkward, and often painful, and at times, I wished the mother would stop talking about the secret mysteries of a woman's heart. Other than that, this series was very artsy and enjoyable.