There will be spoilers for the manhwa series Love for Sale.
Trigger Warning: There may be references to blood, financial struggles, homomisia, compensated relationship/dating, age gap, power imbalance, BDSM, sexual assault, assault, violence, child abuse, child neglect, manipulation, coercion, parentification, ageism, coming out, and implied alcoholism, as it appears in the manhwa.
Namwoo is struggling. He's broke 90% of the time, working all day every day when he isn't in class, and trying to keep it all under wraps from his sister, who desperately wants to help, but who he doesn't want to burden if he can help it. So he suffers in silence, living day by day as best he can on convenience store food in his shoebox apartment. The silence doesn't last for long, though, when all of his stress and desperation come to a head after a night of drinking. While trying to treat his coworker to a coffee for covering for him at work, he can't even afford the coffee. He breaks down right on the spot, crying and wailing no matter who might hear.
As it happens, a kind older man passes by, helps pay for Namwoo's goods, and tries to slip away, only for a drunken Namwoo to follow him out. That man feels compelled to help Namwoo get home, but in Namwoo's drunken stupor, he demands money from the older man. The man placates Namwoo, withdrawing that money, which is hardly enough to cover a month of Namwoo's expenses, and Namwoo, forgetting he had even asked for it, assumes that the man is giving him money for sex. So the moment they get back to Namwoo's apartment, he jumps on the man.
The following day, horrified by his actions and the fact that he's essentially stolen money from a stranger, Namwoo is prepared to go to jail when he meets the stranger. As it turns out, the man is Si-eon, CEO of a publishing company, and rather than being disturbed or offended by Namwoo's drunken antics, he's intrigued. Still, Namwoo wants to pay the man back, but Si-eon refuses, offering a different solution. Si-eon wants to date Namwoo and shower him with all the money he can desire.
The art changes drastically from beginning to end. I nearly didn't carry on with this because of the initial style, being very blocky, stiff, and overshaded at times, but it becomes beautiful very quickly and really settles in. It's such a fun, unique style, albeit very inconsistent at times and not the prettiest. Like with most manhwa, everyone is attractive in their own way, but unlike most manhwa, it is realistically so. Namwoo is cute but overall athletic and average. My fave has to be Si-eon. He's the refined, much older man, and while he doesn't come off as old as they seem to imply he is, he definitely comes off much more mature than most of the other characters we encounter. He is super hot, though he doesn't start that way. In earlier panels, he comes off as more creepy and actually does look much more in line with his age. Still, as the series goes on, he looks younger and much more pleasant, which lends itself well to the progression of the narrative, too, since his character becomes more open and even more childish thanks to Namwoo (think Keiichiro's personality from A Strange & Mystifying Story). I love when the art lends itself to the narrative, intentionally or not.
Unfortunately, he is the top. Some people aren't going to be bothered by this at all, but this is my preference. When there is an age gap-couple, I prefer the top to be the younger person. There is inherently a power imbalance when there is a pairing between an older person and a younger person, with the power mostly being on the older person's side due to their experience and often being in a more stable position. This is especially apparent between Namwoo and Si-eon since Namwoo is financially destitute while Si-eon is rich beyond belief, increasing their power differential. I like for the younger person to have some level of power in the relationship, which usually manifests with them being the top in the bedroom. Not to say that the bottom can't be dominant, but with manhwa, generally, the bottom will be depicted as submissive and the top as dominant in bed. This is no different on that front. However, I love when the bigger man is the bottom. I absolutely love that Namwoo bottoms for Si-eon, and Si-eon ends up wearing Namwoo's oversized jacket around even though he is the cold, dominant top, looking all cute and adorable, and Namwoo's role as the bottom does eventually give him power as he ends up becoming something that Si-eon truly wants, which we'll get into shortly. All of that is certainly to my taste, which is why I'm totally cool with the older one being the top in this case.
To my surprise, the power for Namwoo actually comes from his emotions and his growth, which brings me back to another manhwa I reviewed not too long ago called Surge Towards You. One of the significant praises I had about that manhwa, among many other things, is how masterfully the character's motives and actions were crafted in line with their past traumas and experiences. That masterful characterization is present here as well. Si-eon and Namwoo, although different in so many ways, are pretty identical emotionally. Namwoo's inability to ask for help or really anything at all stems from his parent's neglect and financial trouble, along with his sister's contempt for having to take on the parental role for Namwoo when she was a child herself. On the other end, Si-eon feels compelled to care for others, having to appease his mom to keep her happy and around him in their cold and lonely household. He doesn't want love in return because the one person he did want that from ended up leaving him behind, no matter how much he tried to care for her. So, he's settled with never giving his love to anyone, simply taking care of them to make himself feel better and letting them go when they ask for something he had given before, only to be hurt in the end, his love.
Namwoo never wants things because he knows he can't have them. On the other hand, Si-eon never wants things because his sense of worth is tied to what he can give others, and giving anything to himself is useless. He loves feeling needed and wanted, but only through the material and physical avenues. Anything emotional is too costly to give and would require him to want something in return, which is why he refuses to love anyone, as that ultimately only leads to disappointment, which manifests in the simplest things. He doesn't have any preference in foods, clothes, or movies, all because these things would require a want on his part, opening himself up to disappointment when those objects don't meet his expectations. It's very telling that Namwoo is the first person he takes the initiative to break up with, the first kind thing he's done without the selfish foundation of self-fulfillment behind it. It hurts Namwoo, but it's for his own good, showing that Si-eon cares for him, no matter how much he might deny it to himself. I love that.
His neutrality is a defense mechanism to protect himself from being disappointed. Still, he selfishly harms those around him when his giving nature is misunderstood as love and affection. Because his giving isn't just random and without thought, he takes the time to notice things about the person and align all of his gifts with their wants and needs because it's not about the giving really. It's about proving his worth to others so they stick around, something he couldn't do with his mother when she left their family. Ironically, someone so selfless is actually entirely selfish in his acts of giving. Only when Namwoo declares that he will love Si-eon regardless of whether he can love him in return does Si-eon begin to accept his love and want for Namwoo. This is where Namwoo gains power in the relationship, able to sway and tie down Si-eon using the genuinely unconditional love he's never experienced, though unknowingly longed for. It's such a powerful statement that has really stuck with me. Namwoo learning to ask for help and want for things is deep, but the depth is really in Si-eon and his selfish selflessness.
One major complaint I do have is that in later sex scenes, they don't ever finish (well, we see Namwoo finish a lot, but I'd like to see Si-eon finish, too). It's a lot of starts with no pay-offs, which is unfortunate. Supposedly, they do finish, but we, the viewer, never see it. It's only more disappointing because some of the sweetest and sexiest scenarios come up after they have affirmed their feelings for one another. It's a bit ironic that we see all of the sex and intimacy when their relationship is tenuous at best but see only bits and pieces after it's solidified. Don't get me wrong. They are still really fun to see but disappointing. I also have to point out how much they talk during sex, which is never my favorite. I find sex conversations so awkward. Thankfully, there is some self-aware humor in many of these moments, but I still would rather the serious conversations occur after the act rather than during it.
I think this might be my longest review to date and for good reason. This is a very character-focused, deep, and smutty journey with many ups and downs, and I love it all. While the art isn't going to be to everyone's taste, the story is worth reading for alone. There's not a ton of action. Many significant events and development are based on long-winded conversations with a casual or smutty backdrop, which some people might feel are a bit slow. Still, the way the narrative is built out with mirrored points of view, the use of flashbacks for character building, and the like is masterful and makes it an immediate fave for me. If you're looking for more action-driven narratives, this will probably be a miss, but this is a must-read for slow and passive stories that deal more with the internal than the external.
Have you read Love for Sale? If so, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment? Do you not? Let me know, and comment below!