The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Published by Park Row on September 1st, 2020
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Mystery
“But she and her mother were now both free yet forever woven into each other. They could be both—separate and inseparable. They were not a rotten net but something more deliberate like threads of color, variations of blue, plaited, one after the other.”
At this point, Reese’s picks for her book club have yet to steer me wrong. The Last Story of Mina Lee is no exception.
In this debut novel by Nancy Jooyoun Kim, 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 just how little she truly knew about her mother.
As Margot’s present-day search continues, it’s woven with 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 the 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.
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.
I am very glad I went into this book blind. I think the less you know about the plot beforehand the better. It really took away any preconceived notions I had about where the story was headed.
This is a fantastic debut novel. I think it was an excellent choice to tell the story of a mother and daughter through this intimate lens.
I will never tire of a mother/daughter story especially if they’ve struggled all their lives to understand each other, like Mina and Margot.
I didn’t mind the back and forth timeline because I feel like important information was revealed at the most opportune moments. We got glimpses of Mina’s life and Margot side of the story.
Kim writes in gorgeous prose and captures the intensity and complexity of grief shared by two women. It made my heart ache reading how they both struggled to live out their stories in a space that’s dominated by whiteness and dictated by powerful men.
I didn’t expect to get choked up reading moments of solidarity between POC.
In the beginning, a Sikh cabbie tells Mina to keep her fare on her very first day of LA. Mina later learns Spanish so she can joke around and connect with her Latinx coworkers. She even helps an undocumented Mexican family escape an abusive employer. It’s these moments that were incredibly moving.
I did have some issues with the book. I didn’t particularly care for the mystery/thriller aspect around Mina’s death. It felt unnecessary and I think the story was strong enough without this gimmick.
Pacing was a huge problem for me too. I felt like a lot of things were rushed especially the resolution to Mina’s death. But I absolutely loved Mina’s story. I wanted to learn more about her and her life. She’s a strong woman that continues to fight for herself and for others.
While this is no perfect debut novel (none of them ever are), I can definitely see myself reading Kim’s next book.
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