The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Published by: Park Row
Publish Date: September 2020
Genre(s): Fiction, Contemporary, Asian Lit, Mystery, Historical
HB&W Rating: 3
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Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother.
Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she’s barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
Did stories keep us alive or kill us with false expectations? It depended on who wrote them perhaps.
This book was just okay for me. Generally, most of the books I’ve read that had that coveted Reese’s Book Club sticker on the cover, I have straight up loved, flipping pages long past my bed time, spending way too much daylight reading them. But while the premise of this story intrigued me, the story itself seemed to be just as confused as the one of our heroines, Margot.
We have Margot, who grows worried for her mother when she’s been unable to get her on the phone. Traveling back to L.A. from Seattle with her friend, Margot discovers her mother’s body lying prone on the floor in what appears to have been a terrible accident. But as Margot begins to comb through her mother’s belongings, secrets emerge and she begins to wonder if she ever really knew her mother at all and if those secrets had something to do with her death.
I liked the portrayal of the immigrant’s plight upon arriving in America because I believe we need to hear their stories. We need to understand what it is like because too many of us are so far removed from the generations in our family that immigrated to this country, and we are spoiled for it, under-appreciating our privilege in our ignorance. The author did a fantastic job portraying this aspect, and that alone made this story worth reading.
Because their life would be a part of the lie that this country repeated to live with itself–that fairness would prevail; that the laws protected everyone equally; that this land wasn’t stolen from Native peoples; that this wealth wasn’t built by Black people who were enslaved but by industrious white men, “our” founders; that hardworking immigrants proved this was a meritocracy; that history should only be told from one point of view, that of those who won and still have power.
I liked also that the author was able to really help us feel the tenuous relationship between mother and daughter. The strength of character Mina had to possess to continue to pick up the pieces after her world fell apart so many times was astounding, and in her position, grieving her losses and the hits that just keep coming, it is easy to see why she might choose not to talk about her struggles and certain parts of her life with her daughter or anyone. It was a coping mechanism for her, the only way she was able to deal. But choosing to keep that part of herself from her daughter had consequences for their relationship. Conversely, it’s easy to see how Margot might view her mother, the poor immigrant, barely scraping by, embarrassed by their situation compared with the American ideal.
The overarching theme of loneliness, otherness, and un-belonging is something that I think we can all relate to on some level or at one point or another in our lives. Whether we are lonely because we feel like no one truly understands us, accepts us for who we are, or maybe because we don’t fit into a world that was made for someone else, I think the author portrayed this theme in a thoughtful and encompassing way.
Perhaps that was the life of any woman like her mother, a woman who was poor and in so many ways powerless but nonetheless persisted like a kind of miracle, a defiance against the world.
The writing itself was decent and there were several beautifully crafted turns of phrase, but on the whole it was not quite on the level I was hoping for in a book attempting this caliber of a story. It seemed at points that the author only had so many words to use to describe certain things, for example her use of the phrase “animal breath” in the romance between Mr. Kim and Mina or ascribing other actions animalistic characteristics, or repeatedly using the word “lonely” or an iteration of it, which seemed to be trying to beat us over the head with the theme. I just think that a story around a theme should convey that theme without having to come out and state it so plainly or repeatedly. I felt that the theme was well written and this was a bit redundant in my opinion and actually took away from the theme’s potency.
The book seemed to be part family saga, part coming of age, part historical, and part mystery/thriller. I don’t know if it is because it was trying to be too many things or what, but this book just fell a little short of the mark on many of them. It seemed to me that it was really reaching for that mystery/thriller aspect but then kind of lost the thread and gave up completely with the way it ended. I found it rather anti-climactic and didn’t care for the way things were tied off so neatly. It felt like there were story threads that the author wrote into the story but then toward the end, didn’t know what to do with it. It just felt off for me.
While the portrayal of the struggles of immigrants (legal and otherwise) in this country and the theme of loneliness was well written, ultimately, this story left me a bit underwhelmed.
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