I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably keep saying it: My favorite thing about Book of the Month is how it introduces me to new books that weren’t on my radar. Last month, one of their main September picks was The Last Story of Mina Lee, the debut novel by Nancy Jooyoun Kim. I didn’t get it at the time (there were too many other picks that I’d been anticipating for a while), but this month, it was one I had to have.
The Last Story of Mina Lee centers on the title character, but it’s divided between her life and the aftermath of her death.
In 1987, Mina Lee flees South Korea after losing everything. She ends up in Los Angeles, overstaying her tourist visa and hoping to forge a new future for herself. She slowly builds a new life, but barriers – both personal and external – make it hard, and it may not lead to the happy ending she longs for.
In 2014, Mina’s 26-year-old daughter Margot drives down from her home in Seattle to see her in Los Angeles. But when Margot arrives, she finds her mother dead on her apartment floor. Though it seems to have been an accident, Margot is on a mission to uncover secrets from her mother’s life: What was Mina hiding all those years? Who was Margot’s dad? What really happened in Mina’s final months?
Right before reading this, I read about Chinese and Japanese Americans living in Seattle in the 1940s and 1980s in Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I knew I wanted to stay with Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, and The Last Story of Mina Lee was the perfect follow-up novel. It opens with Margot and her friend Miguel driving down from Seattle to Los Angeles – a perfect shift from one setting to the next, if I do say so myself.
Like the previous novel I read, The Last Story of Mina Lee has a certain intimate quiet about it. It’s tender and immediately absorbing, and I felt drawn into the story from the very first pages. But as the novel moves forward, it grows in depth and drama, adding new layers of strife and secrecy as we go.
Without spoiling too much, I will say outright that Mina Lee has a sad life filled with too much suffering. She’s such a lonely character, continuously left behind by those she cares about most. It’s no wonder that she also has fragile mental health, and it goes beyond simple grief. She’s often suicidal, moving from ideation to actual attempts. It’s difficult to read, but also an important theme to illustrate. However, I would advise people who are sensitive to suicidal thinking to be cautious about reading this.
That said, The Last Story of Mina Lee highlights another important topic, really drawing out how difficult it is to be an undocumented immigrant. On top of the language barriers and the racism, we also see how little power these immigrants have. When they’re robbed or attacked, when their lives are in danger, they have few or no options available to protect themselves or seek justice. Evil men abuse their power and know they’ll face no consequences. Reading this, I really felt for each of the immigrants struggling to survive in their new home. I truly believe all immigrants should have a path to citizenship, regardless of how they came to America.
We see major differences between Mina and her daughter Margot. It’s not just that Mina is an immigrant who really only speaks Korean, whereas Margot was born in America and really only speaks English. There’s a major chasm between Mina and Margot, one that they never quite overcome during Mina’s life. They see the world in such different ways, but there’s also so much that Mina hides from her daughter.
It’s was heart-wrenching to see this fraught mother-daughter relationship, and to see it only healed after Mina’s death. But I appreciate Margot’s determination to finally understand her mother, and I love that she finds a bit of herself in the process.
When the book ends, it feels incomplete. I wanted more, and there were still some gaps that never felt fully resolved. But this can also represent how life is: You never know everything about those you love, and at some point you have to be content with the parts that may remain a mystery forever.
The Last Story of Mina Lee is a beautiful and thought-provoking novel about family, loss, grief, mental illness, and secrets… but also about love and the mother-daughter relationship. It’s about how hard immigrants work to build safe lives, and how much can change from one generation to the next. I look forward to reading more from Nancy Jooyoun Kim, and will be looking out for her second book in the next few years.
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