Joanna Scott's richly imagined The Lucky Gourd Shop begins in America, where the adoptive mother of three Korean children tries to find out more about their pasts. But where she fails, we succeed; the rest of the novel takes us back a generation, to a South Korea ravaged by years of poverty and war. There we meet Mi Sook--orphan, independent spirit, and, as soon becomes clear, the children's birth mother. Found abandoned in an alley and raised like a stray in the back room of a coffee shop, Mi Sook grows up pretty, bubbly, and happy enough, but still "that rare creature in her society, one who did not draw her sense of self from fixed relationships with others." In South Korea, of course, to be without fixed relationships--to be without family--is to live in a dangerous limbo, and soon enough Mi Sook finds trouble. Throughout the events that follow, Scott's powerful narrative voice never fails to convince. In her telling, this is a story without villains; even the violent husband is no monster when we learn the intense economic and cultural pressures with which he struggles. More to the point, it's also a story without victims; as in all great works of literature, Scott's characters are made of flesh and blood, capable of agency and action and especially mistakes. This first novel succeeds on a number of levels, as an imaginative leap between nations and generations and as a snapshot of a culture in transition. Most of all, however, The Lucky Gourd Shop is a precise, affecting, and unsentimental portrait of Mi Sook herself, of hardships endured without knowing they're hardships and choices that are scarcely choices at all. --Chloe Byrne
From Library Journal
This tale of a ravaged contemporary South Korea quickly shatters the reader's complacency. Scott, author of Pursuing Pauline, a story of women in revolution, has written a riveting, compelling, and disturbing novel. The main characters are three Korean children who first we meet as Americanized teenagers searching for their heritage. We are quickly taken back to Seoul ten years earlier, where the story of Li Na, Dae Young, and Tae Hee unfolds. Remembering that this story takes place in contemporary times is often a difficult task because of the primitive surroundings and starvation fare. Mi Sook, the children's mother, doomed by circumstances to fail, has to abandon the children to an orphanage where they were found by their American family. But there is more to the story, and it soon becomes evident that the children's history will remain a mystery. Scott's descriptive talent is enormous; at times you wish it were not so good. Recommended for all venues.DPatricia Gulian, South Portland, ME
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