The Last Story of Mina Lee

- Nancy Jooyoun Kim

Goodreads Book Blurb:

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.


My Review:

enjoyable/easy to read:
Mina is a Korean immigrant to the United States, fleeing a country that has robbed her of her family twice; first, separated from her parents as a young child fleeing the North, and second when her husband and daughter are killed in an accident. She enters the US on a holiday visa with no plans to leave.

Margot is Mina’s American-born daughter. Speaking little Korean with no awareness of Mina’s past, or even who her own father is, they have a fractured relationship.

This is a story about the secrets that can exist between friends and family, about how you can never truly know everything about anyone, and about the regrets that come when you don’t make the effort to speak or to try and understand.

I felt sorry for Margot and for the regret she felt throughout the book, but I felt worse for Mina. She worked so hard to overcome so much grief, escaped to a country where she didn’t speak the language and knew very few people with only the hope of working hard enough to be able to stay. I understand that as a young child Margot may have been resentful, her mother being different, not having much money, having to help out at work. But you’d hope that as she grew older, moved away for university, and gained some perspective, maybe she’d be more understanding of what her mother had been through as an undocumented single mother. Instead, she just seemed spoiled and stubborn. Even the rarely mentioned two-month relationship that she was so broken up about seemed fairly pathetic. Everything was always so overwhelming, I just wanted to shake her and tell her to grow up.

Sadness crept up from her chest into her face. She wondered how many women had been trapped - in terrible marriages, terrible jobs, unbearable circumstances - simply because the world hasn’t been designed to allow them to thrive on their own.

I enjoyed Mina’s chapters, her story of overcoming heartbreak and loss. Of making new friendships and relationships in a foreign place, unaware of who to trust and how much. The strength she showed throughout her life, always feeling separate, abandoned, and less than. I would recommend this book for these chapters alone. And while Margot’s chapters weren’t as inspirational, they were still interesting as she worked to uncover the truth behind the mother she had never truly known.

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