Kyung-Sook Shin has written an exceptional novel and I can see why it is a bestseller in its native language, in Korea. It is a story about relationships, about families and those close to us. The story is about a mother who is separated from her husband when boarding a train in Seoul, South Korea,on the way to visit her eldest son and her family's search for her. It is told in four voices, a daughter, a son, a husband and a mother. The story unfolds in mostly second-person narration, from the point of view of each these characters. The translator, Chi-Young Kim did an excellent job with the translation and made it seem as though it were originally written in English.
Rather than being given a lot of intimate details about each of these people, the author brings us into the drama of the mother disappearing at the station, and although we come to know a little more about the mother, there are really more questions than answers about the other family members. I normally like stories with a lot of character development, but somehow, this really worked and I was quickly drawn in, perhaps in the way of an accident or other tragedy where you don't want to look, but somehow need to know how and why it happened and how the people involved are affected. In many cases Kyung-Sook Shin gives only a few details and it is up to the reader to fill in the blanks. It gives a glimpse into the culture of present day South Korea both in a large city and in a rural area and we can see how much things have changed in only a single generation. It only took a few pages to become very involved.
This story is about complex emotions and interactions between family members. It was striking how differently each member of the family handled the disappearance. There are emotions that most of us could identify with in some way: helplessness, guilt, impatience, sadness and also joy. It was powerful and fragile at the same time. There are lessons to be learned and questions about how we view our relationships. It's the kind of story I'll be thinking about for a long time.
Try not to read too many spoilers if you're planning to read this book. The story needs to be uncovered layer, by layer, just as it was written. Two thumbs up for this moving novel.
This is a unique novel, unlike anything I had read before. It is extraordinarily emotional. I couldn't put it down.
A wife and husband have journeyed from their family farm to the city to visit their grown children. He rushes onto a subway train, expecting her to follow. He travels several stops before he even realizes she's not there.
The family has to deal with the trauma of having their mother/wife/sister-in-law missing. She has various health problems that add to their concerns, and time passes with few leads. They all recall past events that make them realize how important she was to them and how they took her devotion and hard work for granted. They also begin to comprehend how little they truly knew about her feelings, hopes and dreams - - the person behind labels like "mother" or "wife."
The book is alternately heartbreakingly sad and uplifting. It will make you want to hug every person you care about and tell them how much you love them. Better yet, I hope it will make you ask them questions about who they truly are, what their childhood was like, what they wanted in life. All those things you can't ask after they are gone.
It was also fascinating to read about Korean culture and history as it related to the family. However, in the long run, this book is a universal story of human life, equally relevant to modern America.
I highly, highly recommend this beautiful book to everyone. In fact, it should be required reading because you will never see your family, particularly your mother, the same way again.
I don't remember ever feeling so fortunate to get my hands on an Advance Reader's Copy, than I did after finishing this English translated Korean best seller, Please Look After Mom. This is definitely one of my favorite Vine books, and it will certainly have a place among my favorites in my personal library.
The novel revolves around an elderly Korean woman, Park So-nyo, who goes missing after losing contact with her husband at the Seoul subway station. As her family feverishly searches for her, the reader gets a taste of what type of person Park So-nyo was, and a feel for the relationships she shared with her loved-ones. The whole book is told in 4 chapters, by 4 different characters: 2 of the missing woman's children, her husband, and the missing woman herself.
I loved every minute that I was able to steal away and read Kyung-soak Shin's poetic prose, and I'd recommend this book to anyone who is a mother, who knows a mother, or who has a mother.
on May 23, 2011
"Please Look After Mom" is the kind of book I find myself gravitating towards these days...books about different cultures. This book delivers great insight into the Korean culture and the interfamial workings of a Korean family. Each of the four relationships are depicted from the point of view of the individual. The central point of the book is the varied reactions of four family members to the mysterious loss of their Mom at a crowded Seoul Train Station. Father gets on the train but Mom does not. The family reacts as most families would. We never do find out exactly what happened to Mom.
Two negatives with this book: the use of the word "You" for every character brings confusion as to who is speaking. Second: I enjoyed the book but could not get excited about reading it straight through. I procrastinated and took weeks to finish it. This is the reason I gave this book 3 stars. I would not discourage readers from reading it but be advised that is's a slow read.
S O'Brien, Illinois
on April 7, 2011
This book is absolutely wonderful. The prose is melodic, and beautiful. The story catches hold of you and won't let go, and at the end, instead of feeling bereft, you feel a catharsis (and a need to go hug your mom and tell her how much you love her). If you are a mom, you can feel truly confident that even if it seems your kids take you for granted, someday they will realize how truly special you were to them. If you are thinking about your own mother, you will gain a new appreciation for all the sacrifices and love she showed you. This book is a true gem and I felt it was like a beautiful flower that slowly bloomed as I read it, and at the end, I did cry, but it was a good cry. It was so heart-felt and beautiful. Please, read this book, then go give your mom a hug and kiss and tell her you love her and appreciate her. The mother/child relationship is so complicated: sometimes you feel annoyed at your mom, sometimes you want to tell her how annoying she is, but just realize, at the end, you need to tell her you love her.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is an endearing and emotionally moving story on a subject none of us would like to have happen - the disappearance of a loved one; in this case the mother of the family. While on their way to visit to Seoul to visit with their children, 69 year-old So-nyo gets separated from her husband at a Seoul subway station. One minute she is behind him getting on a crowded train, but once the train doors close, the husband looks around and realizes his wife is not with him. Going back to the station, expecting to see So-nyo patiently waiting for him, she is nowhere to be found. Her selfish children are consumed with grief and guilt, but move into action to find their missing mother. As they argue over the text for the "Missing" flyers they will paste all over town, the strategy of placing ads in the newspaper, how much is an appropriate reward, they realize that none of them have a recent photo of their mom, but only an old formal picture that vaguely resembles their mom. As they follow-up all leads, and as each examines their relationship with mom, a far more important question arises - Who is their mom?
This breathtaking and suspenseful tale is narrated from four different points of view within the family: the daughter, Chi-hon, a widely recognized author whose relationship with her mother was not always peaceful; the eldest son, Hyong-chol, who was often burdened with the responsibilities of being the eldest and a male; the too often unfaithful husband, a torn man who only now recognizes the deep feelings he has for his wife; and lastly the mother herself. Each chapter adds a layer to the story's depth and complexity, and this is made more powerful by the mother telling her story last and in the first-person, confirming or correcting what the previous narrators have said, and most importantly revealing who she is as a person without the label of mother, wife, or daughter.
While the book's themes are universal, the details of the story are specific to contemporary Korea. I got a good glimpse into window of the culture of Korea, its food, festivals, traditions and family dynamics. The writing was spell-binding as the author skillfully juxtaposed images of modern Korea vs. wartime Korea, city living vs. country living, and older generation vs. younger generation. After finishing this book, it caused me to pause, and think about myself as a mother and a daughter - do I really know my mother and do my children really know me.
I recommend this book to readers who enjoy stories of family dynamics, emotional stories, or stories set in Asia.
Reviewed by Beverly
APOOO Literary Book Review
"Please Look After Mom", a novel by Kyung-sook Shin was excellent! This intimate story is about a family in Korea, but if you exchange the names and locations...it is also the story of any given American family. The book is told from various perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother. This story will cause you to analyze yourself and your relationship with your parents, children, and spouse. Many of the pitfalls that we fall into by simply getting caught up in the rat race of work and life could be eliminated if we were more attentive and this novel certainly puts food for thought on the readers mind.
The mother gets lost among the crowd as she waits to board public transportation. Once it has been discovered that she is missing, the family starts searching for her and can't find her. During the search each person begins to analyze various things about the mother. Each person finds that as time passed by and the kids grew up...they became less attentive to mother and too wrapped up in their own world. They discovered so much about their mother from outside people that they did not know about their own mother. Why did they not spend more time with mother? Why did they not share personal things anymore? Why did mom perform certain rituals that now they find themselves doing with their own families? Why did they not realize that mom could not read? Why motivated mom's likes and dislikes about each one of them? Why did the husband take his wife for granted? What do kids miss when they don't attend funerals of their elders? What family history and/or treasure do they not know because they showed no interest in the mother's siblings? How can mothers sacrifice everything, even their own hopes and dreams for their kids? Where did her strength come from to face all the hardships that her life contained?
Now the family must face the reality that they may never have answers to a lot of questions. Each person is realizing how fragile and precious time with family really is and that once it is gone...you can't get it back. This story makes one realize the depth of family love and you may just look at your mother through new eyes and regardless of the status of your relationship...be proactive about making it a quality relationship...if death, dementia, Alzheimer's, or some other illness has not interrupted it.
One daughter who had no care or concern for a persimmon tree that her mother had given her to plant, but after the mother came up missing; she gained an attachment and appreciation for the tree and was able to read more into the gift than just fruit. It is amazing how even though the mother was taken was granted, once she was missing...all the stories and words of wisdom were right there instilled in her children's hearts. So universal all over the world, relationships between a mother and a child.
on April 6, 2011
When I first began Please Look After Mom, I was disconcerted with the second-person narrative. It's such a rare mode that I was instantly taken back to those Choose Your Own Adventure books. I decided to stick with it, though, and eventually the awkwardness dissipated for me.
There are five parts to this novel with the POVs as follows: oldest daughter, oldest son, father, mother, oldest daughter. Not all the parts use the second-person narrative, and I came to rather like the changing modes. Not every author and not every topic can pull off the second-person narrative; in fact, I'd go so far as to say few can. Kyung-Sook Shin used the narratives marvelously in order to really bring the reader that much closer, that much more involved to the story and search for mom.
Part of the reason I think I enjoyed this so much is because I'm half Korean, and I could relate to the characters and circumstances rather well. At one point or another in my life so far, I've been every one of those children. Their mother reminded me of my mother, struggling to survive, growing up in a war-torn country but still continuing on, persevering no matter the obstacle. And still, with all she's faced, giving all her love and support, putting her family first regardless of the cost to her.
But let me stress that you don't have to be Korean or know anything about Korea to take something away from Please Look After Mom. Yes, there are Korean dishes and cultural references but those don't define the piece. It's about a mother's love for her children and their revelation that mom is so much more. As the layers are peeled back of just who this woman is, we learn at the same time they do of her spirit and everlasting love as a mother, wife, human being and daughter. It shows a mother with flaws but one who tries to be the best she can be. This book is a dedication to all the mothers who have sacrificed their lives so that we may have a better one. And it's a reminder to demonstrate through words and actions your own heartfelt appreciation and love for mom whenever you can.
Those who have traveled to Korea will know right away that the number 4 (pinyin sì) is considered unlucky because it sounds like "death" (pinyin s'). Why, then, did Korean author Kyung-sook Shin carefully craft a novel from four different viewpoints?
The answer is that the members of this family are unlucky, or at the very least, careless. Through years as a family, none of them ever really knew Mom or understood the sources of her strength. And now she has disappeared in a crowded Seoul subway station, where she and her husband of 50 years were about to board a train. Her disappearance devastates those who are left behind.
The story is told from four alternating points of view: Chi-hon, the oldest daughter and a successful novelist, Hyung-chol, the oldest son who is wracked with guilt for not living up to his potential, her husband who inevitably disappointed Mom through his selfishness and adultery, and last of all, Mom. Little by little, a fuller image of Mom emerges, although we, the readers, never really get to know all the facets of Mom either.
Chi-hon reflects, "Either a mother and daughter know each other very well, or they are strangers...You realized you'd become a stranger as you watched Mom try to conceal her messy everyday life." As Chi-hon strives to sort out who her Mom really was, she realizes that, "...because of one thing or another you would push calling her to the end of your list." Mom had become superfluous in her busy life, a solid presence who was always a little bit of an enigma.
Hyung-chol was the favored son who was both idolized and pressured. In the end though, he could not live up to Mom's aspirations and dreams for him. "Mom's disappearance was triggering events in his memory moments, like the maple-leaf doors, he thought he'd forgotten about."
The two adult children - and their father - realize, too late, that Mom was an integral part of existence. Father thinks, "When she planted seedlings of eggplant, purple eggplants hung everywhere throughout the summer and into the fall. Anything she touched grew in bounty." Still, he selfishly ignores her intense headaches and the heartbreaks that Mom is forced to undergo alone.
When we get to Mom's story, we learn some of the background - her arranged marriage, for instance, and a few of the secrets she keeps. But it's left to Chi-hon to recognize the truth in a letter from her younger sister, "Do you remember asking me a little while ago to tell you something I knew about Mom? All I knew was that Mom's missing. It's the same now. I especially don't know where her strength came from. Think about it. Mom did things that one person couldn't do by herself. I think that's why she became emptier and emptier."
Please Look After Mom is a novel that's distinctly Korean -ancestral-rite tables, the Full Moon Harvest, plum juice and steamed skate - but is also very universal. Every view is explored - Chi-hon and Father's stories are in second person, Hyung-chol's is in third person and Mom's is in first person. And, while the second person tense can become a little cumbersome, the writing is still direct, moving, and graceful.
It's worth noting that Kyung-sook Shin is already a prominent novelist in Korea; the book sold nearly one and a half million copies in South Korea. Translated expertly by Chi-Young Kim, the book is certain to make readers appreciate the hardworking, uncomplaining women who go by the simple endearment "Mom."
on May 23, 2011
In this somber and heartbreaking novel, an older woman, mother to four children and three grandchildren, goes missing after she fails to follow her husband onto a train in a crowded station. Though her children immediately take to the streets to hand out flyers offering a reward for information, time passes with no news or plausible leads. Park So-nyo is out there somewhere, lost and confused as each child reflects on their life with a mother who would do anything and sacrifice all for each of them and her husband. As the chapters move forward, an intimate picture or Park So-nyo is revealed: a hardworking farm woman living in the rocky hills of Korea, cooking and cleaning and farming the land year after unchanging year, giving her children the kind of love and support that is often taken for granted. When the grown children begin to talk amongst themselves and their father, it's revealed that Mother had been acting strangely even months before her disappearance, succumbing to violent headaches that sometimes left her unconscious and other times forgetful. Now it's up to the children and their father to bring Park So-nyo back home, despite the extended length of time she's been missing, for they all wish to finally tell her they love her and that her seemingly inconsequential life has meaning to each of them. Spare and unflinching, Please Look After Mom is a story with immense emotional weight and heft, and will leave its readers hungering for a resolution to the dilemma of a missing woman, gone before her time, and the pain it sparks in the family that still searches for her.
One of the things that was different about this book was the fact that three of the four sections, which alternated in their viewpoints, were written in the first person. Although this doesn't always work, what happened here was that the use of first person actually intensified the urgency and alienation of each of these characters from their mother. It was a risky thing to attempt, but because it was employed successfully, it elevated the narrative into a thing of beauty and, at times, terror.
The story in this book was penetrating, yet somehow reserved with secrets popping out of the text like landmines. Each section is a narration from a different character, whose relationship with Park So-nyo varies in strength and passion, and who comes to realize that the loss of their mother is a fundamental source of agony for so many reasons. The eldest daughter is the first section to be narrated, and as she rediscovers her mother through long forgotten or discarded memories, she begins to see that all the sacrifices that her mother made for her went unappreciated. Park So-nyo's life has been filled with melancholy and longing, and it's only after she is gone that her daughter sadly begins to realize this. Throughout the book, Park So-nyo is brought into clear focus and then curiously blurred away again.
The sections that are told from the point of view of Hyong-chol, the oldest son and favored child, revel in the memories of his complicity in her special coddling of him, and as he treks all over town following one bad lead after another, his heart is breaking. It becomes evident as the story progresses that none of the children, and even her husband, ever really knew what kind of woman she was; What her thoughts and desires might be, or why she consistently put her family before her in every matter. As strange reports of sightings begin to come in about an injured woman wandering alone, both the readers and the characters come to share a feeling of discomfiture at the implications of this news. Even the children's father comes to realize that she was a stranger to him, and his ambivalent and neglectful treatment of her rear up in his heart to cripple him once his wife is not returned to him promptly.
Park So-nyo begins to emerge as a hard-scrabbling farm woman who is careful with money and very industrious, laboring long and hard in her fields, rice paddy and kitchen, but for whom sacrifices are not rare. What's saddest about all this is her family's complete lack of concern for the woman who cares for all their ills and who ignores her own pain to give them a better and more successful life. Park So-nyo is essentially unappreciated, and by the time she has gone missing, it's only regret and heartache that she inspires in her children and husband, who are now desperate to tell her how important she is to them. It's a heartbreaking and poignant tale that speaks eloquently of regret and missed opportunities, of mistreatment and the kind of ignorance of the heart that can begin to take place so easily in day-to-day life. These are relationships that survived on indifference, silence and disregard. The last chapters of the book are the most heartrending, as Park So-nyo narrates them herself and expounds on the lives of her children and husband and how she feels about each of them individually.
This was a very powerfully written yet quiet book that reverberated with the kinds of emotions that left me feeling withered and saddened. There are no easy answers and things don't tie up nicely in the end. At times it was frustrating to read about how these ancillary characters cared so little for Park So-nyo while she was with them and how condescending and cruel they could be to her at times. It was a book that packed a huge emotional punch and left me feeling saddened, yet also a bit more heart-wise. It made me consider the error of leaving things unsaid and emotions left unexplored, and pulled me into the story of a broken and divided family whose only wish was for their mother to return. An entrancing read, highly recommended.