The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

The Last Story of Mina Lee
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As the daughter of an elderly mother who lives 1,000 miles away, this book’s premise almost made me put it down after the first chapter. Margot Lee’s mother is not returning her calls, and when Margot flies to L.A. to investigate, she discovers that her mother is dead. This plot point did not improve my paranoia when my mom does not return my calls, but I decided to hang in there with this atmospheric, suspenseful novel picked by Reece Witherspoon for her popular book club.

Two things intrigued me: the immigrant narrative (Margot’s single mother, Mina, was an undocumented immigrant from Korea) and the Korean perspective. I try to include at least one book representing diverse ethnicities in my monthly reading, and as the mother of a Korean daughter I am a little bit obsessed with all things Korean.

Margot and Mina’s stories are interwoven; each reflects on the other. Margot, 26, is trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to do with her life. Though her mother was a loving parent, she was also distant and secretive, and it is only after her death that Margot figures out why. Mina’s story is engrossing as she survives the Korean War and loses her parents, and then sustains a terrible tragedy as a young woman still living in Korea. When she flees to L.A. to begin a new life far from the place where she lost everything, Mina struggles to navigate a new country, language, and culture. While she ekes out a living stocking shelves at a Korean market, she unexpectedly (and delightfully, for a time) falls in love, an event connected to what happens the night of her death many years later.

Though the novel ratchets up the suspense and violence near the end (reminding me a tiny bit of the 2020 Oscar winner for Best Movie, the Korean-made Parasite), it is mainly a drama about a mother and daughter whose love is hindered by secrets and the inevitable tensions of an immigrant parent and child. Mina lived with one foot in Korea her whole life, while American-born Margot barely understood her mother’s language, never mind her deep attachments to the old country.

Strong language and violence occur intermittently throughout the novel. There is a subplot involving a church, but Christian readers may feel sad as I did about the lack of any transformative meaning attached to faith. (Park Row)

About the Author

Lorilee Craker, a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a 1924 house full of teenagers, pets, exchange students, and houseplants. The author of 15 books, including Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and Me, she is the Mixed Media editor of The Banner. Find her at Lorileecraker.com or on Instagram @thebooksellersdaughter.

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