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Thursday, August 27, 2020

#ATBR2020 Review: The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim @parkrowbooks @njooyounkim @jessmapreviews

The Last Story of Mina Lee 
by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

Publisher: Park Row Books
Publish Date: September 1, 2020
384 Pages
Genre: Contemporary

A profoundly moving and unconventional mother-daughter saga, The Last Story of Mina Lee illustrates the devastating realities of being an immigrant in America.

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.

Told through the intimate lens of a mother and daughter who have struggled all their lives to understand each other, The Last Story of Mina Lee is a powerful and exquisitely woven debut novel that explores identity, family, secrets, and what it truly means to belong.

My Review:

So many thoughts on this one.  So many.  I'll try not to ramble too much and keep this short and succinct.  Mina (mother) and Margot (daughter) - two time lines, two different stories.  Usually with two different storylines, I prefer one over the other.   I think I was more interested in Mina's because of the hardships she endured, the sacrifices she made and the secrets that she kept.  Margot did resonate for me though -  being the daughter of an immigrant and trying to handle two different cultures.  

While there is a sense of mystery in trying to figure out if Mina's death was actually accidental, this book is mainly a look at the mother/daughter relationship.  Margot finally gets a look at the person her mother was while trying to reconcile her guilt at not visiting or staying in contact more.  I absolutely LOVE all the Korean references - omg, the food!  I smiled at a lot of things that reminded me of my Korean family and certain parts really had my heart. 

I think the book starts strong but then I went through pockets of lulls as I was reading.  The pacing seems a bit weird and I wish I had more of Mina's story before she came to the U.S.  But these are fairly small things compared to how much this book touched my heart.

"But her mother's harshness was designed to protect Margot from what her mother considered to be a universe without shelter, without much kindness for kindness' sake."

What it boils down to is realizing that our parents are human and they had a different kind of life before they had us.  We tend to take them for granted and as a child of an immigrant, the embarrassment of trying to fit into a different culture while coming home to another can be daunting and frustrating.  But we need to realize just how much harder it was (and probably still is) for them.  I certainly have a stronger and better relationship with my mother now that I'm older, she's not as harsh (she likes to say she's mellowed out over the years) and I have a better understanding and have embraced my Korean side.

Everyone, consider your parents and realize that they're so much more than the person who raised you.  If your parents are still around, go give them a hug or give them a call.  In this hustle & bustle world, don't get so busy that you're going to regret your inactions when it is too late.

And.... I did a double take a couple times from this cover as it reminds me so much of my cousin, if I was walking behind her. 😉 Weird note I know, but it's true!


Jessica's Review:

This book was so perfectly timed for me. After a few duds and DNFs I picked up THE LAST STORY OF MINA LEE and it was everything I needed in a book. Not only was this beautifully written, but the dual timelines and perspectives really drew out the characters for the readers and you find yourself connecting with both Mina and Margot.

Margot hasn't heard from her mother for a while, so she decides to return to her childhood home to check in. She discovers that her mother has suspiciously died and she is determined to figure out what could have happened to her. In her searching, Margot starts to go through her mother's things and begins to learn more about her past. Our two storylines are present day with Margot and in the past during Mina's first years in the United States.

If anything, this is a story about family. The dynamics between a mother and a daughter, and Kim did an incredible job reminding us that our parents did have lives before they had us and that they had their own struggles and journeys to get us to where we are now.  I loved Mina's story and learning about what she experienced in her first years in America. Even though there is a bit of a mystery to the book I wouldn't necessarily classify this as a mystery book, if that makes sense. We get a more character driven novel and I'm blown away that this is a debut novel.

4 stars

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