Review: The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim

Rating: 8/10

Synopsis

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.

Review

The Last Story of Mina Lee represent a unique mixture of genres: on the surface it is very lit fic, but it is also an immigrant story and a second-generation story – plus there is a bit of murder mystery to the narrative. I found that to be a really interesting blend, and I enjoyed reading this book very much.

The story is told in alternating perspectives, vacillating between Mina’s story about coming to America from Korea and Margot’s being born in the US. Experiencing both of these perspectives is a great aspect of the book because there many areas where their accounts intersect and others where they divulge. At times, they face similar struggles – for instance, they both face economic issues with Mina coming to America with almost nothing and having to work menial jobs to get by. At the same time, Margot never learns to speak fluent Korean, and there are other aspects of Korean culture that she does not embrace, even at the behest of her mother. As a reader, I really enjoyed reading the differing perspectives.

My favorite part of this book was Mina’s narrative. At times tragic, others hopeful, sometimes even lustful, Mina’s journey from Korea to building a life in America is complex and endearing. She lived in Koreatown, worked in Korean shops, and eventually opened her own. She makes Korean friends, eats Korean food, and tries her best to keep the Korean culture, the culture she grew up in, alive and close to her heart. While doing so, Mina must also build a life in America, and that means learning about American culture, as well. During her journey, Mina also experiences corruption and hardship, but she remains strong and hopeful. She is definitely a low-key badass. By the end of the book, I realized Mina is not the type to take any stuff, and she can dish it just as much as she can take it – though people tend to underestimate her. She can be fearless at times, and that enables her to do what she needs to do to get by.

There is, of course, the big plot point of Margot (Mina’s daughter) retracing Mina’s steps to figure out how she died. No one wants to talk to her, not even the police, and that forces her to dig deeper; in doing so, Margot explores her mother’s life and finds out a lot about Mina that she did not know. To that end, Margot ends up finding a great deal about herself that she did not know, as well. I enjoyed this murder-mystery-turned-self-discovery piece as another aspect of the book that brings a lot of emotion to the forefront. From both perspectives, this story is an emotional roller-coaster from beginning to end.

Speaking of endings, this book finishes in a very interesting way. It was more twisty than I expected, and I was definitely caught off guard.

The Last Story of Mina Lee is a well-crafted story that brings different story characteristics together to create one very good piece of work. The different pieces come together in a very unique way, and in that regard it kept my interest quite well. I never wanted to put it down, always reading on to learn more about Mina’s life while in the back of my mind knowing she is killed and pushing to find out why. I definitely recommend this book.

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