THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE (on sale: September 1, 2020; Park Row Books; Hardcover; $27.99 US/ $34.99 CAN). opens when Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, doesn’t return her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous and 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.
The first time I heard about this book was by Russell on Ink and Paper blog. So when I got offered the chance to read it for the blog tour I was super excited. Indeed, I had very good reason. This book was an emotional tug that gave me insight into immigrant life.
Margot returns home after a long absence to find her mother dead. As she makes arrangements for her mother’s funeral she tries to sort out the pieces of her mother’s life. She soon comes to realize that a child never really knows the whole of their parents.
As a mother, Mina has had to make sacrifices and put aside pieces of herself in order to guarantee the best for her child. As the child, Margot was oblivious to her mother’s struggles and the secrets she kept to protect her. As a child, she judges her mother for her otherness and blamed her for her own insecurities of not fitting in.
As a woman looking back over that time, she realizes how strong her mother was and how much she must have loved her to make the decisions she did. Margot comes to understand how hard it must have been for her mother to survive as an immigrant in America.
“What did this country ask us all to sacrifice? Was it possible to feel anything while we were all trying to get ahead of everyone else, including ourself?”
Margot learns what it meant for Mina to be held at arm’s length from the American dream. Separated through poverty, by language and living in insular neighborhoods formed from common threats and fears.
In her mother’s death Margot learns not only the pieces that made her mother, but her heritage and herself.
Although The Last Story of Mina Lee may be considered a mystery, I was drawn to the characterization and the process by which Margot comes to know her mother.
There were so many powerful passages that stayed with me and kept me thinking not only of Mina and Margot but of immigrants, women and mothers and daughters.
Did stories keep us alive or kill us with false expectations? It depended on who wrote them perhaps.
With The Last Story of Mina Lee, Nancy Jooyun Kim has written an intimate, richly layered and moving portrayal of Korean immigrant experience. I look forward to reading more of her stories and cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.
Meet the Author
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a graduate of UCLA and the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, The Offing, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Love (or Live Cargo),” was performed for NPR/PRI’s Selected Shorts in 2017 with stories by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Phil Klay, and Etgar Keret. THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE is her first novel.