Please Look After Mom
Translated from the original Korean by Chi-Young Kim
I’ve been on a mission to read some of the books on my Kindle that have been languishing unread for over a year. This book was a massive success in South Korea several years ago, selling over a million copies, and was the first novel by this author to be translated into English. It won the Man Asian Prize in 2011.
I had read a glowing review of it in the New York Times a couple years ago and was intrigued, so I downloaded it. But every time I saw it on my Kindle, I bypassed it. The cover photo just looked so trite. And the title hinted that it might not be my cup of tea.
I should have listened to my gut.
The premise: a woman and her husband are traveling by train from their home in the country to Seoul to visit their grown kids. They arrive at Seoul Station and are hurrying to the subway that will take them to their son’s house. But the husband has a habit of walking ahead of his wife. He gets on the train just as the doors are closing, leaving her alone on the subway platform. He doubles back the first chance he gets
. . . but she is gone.
The book follows the family in the weeks and months after Mom has gone missing. The kids and husband beat themselves up for not having found her, for letting her get lost in the first place. Before she went missing, Mom had been getting headaches and forgetting things, but she said she was fine, and no one demanded she go to the hospital. They are devastated and guilt-ridden. They remember all of the things Mom did for them, all of the ways Mom struggled, and how much they took Mom for granted. They think of all of the things they would do differently if they were to find her.
The book is downright depressing. It just piles sob story on top of sob story. But it didn’t move me to tears. It just made me feel kind of icky. The characters are all deplorable–even poor old Mom (the mom as martyr thing doesn’t really work for me).
As I explained in my review of Bobcat and Other Stories, downer books invoke the Revolutionary Road Rule. In order to get a good rating out of me, it has to be beautifully written. The writing has to be so good that it lifts me out of my funk. That decidedly did not happen here.
Stylistically, the book was a failure. It is separated into four parts and an epilogue. Each of the four parts focuses on a different family member. The first and third parts and the epilogue are written in second person (“you”), the second part is written in third person (“he”), and the fourth part is written in first person with Mom narrating (“I”). Honestly, I’m not sure what the goal was there. Perhaps we were supposed to assume that Mom was, in a way, narrating the whole thing? If that’s the case, it didn’t come through well at all. It was just a muddled mess.
I am not against changing narrators generally (Katherine Stockett does it effectively in The Help, as does Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible), but it needs to be done in a way that enhances the book. Here, it just detracted from it. I spent the first several pages of each section trying to figure out what was going on and about whom the book was talking. The change of person just made things more confusing.
This is the only book I’ve read translated from Korean, which was another reason I was interested in it from the get-go. I was hoping I might learn a few things about Korea and Korean culture. Unfortunately, the descriptions of Seoul and Chongup (the country village where the parents lived and the kids grew up) were generic. There were mentions of ancestral rites, food, and daily life, but they were nondescript. To be fair, this was written in Korean for a Korean audience, so extensive descriptions of those sorts of things weren’t necessary for the original audience. But for someone without a depth of knowledge of Korea and Korean culture, there wasn’t much context provided. Suffice it to say, if you’re looking to learn something about Korea, you’re not going to find that here, either.
Rating: 1/5 🇰🇷
The book’s message is that good moms are selfless and self-sacrificing. Shitty kids take them for granted and don’t truly appreciate them until it’s too late.
It is not subtle.
If you don’t know that already, then you’re not going to learn it from this mess of a book.
Who should read it: No one. I only wrote the review to warn you not to read it.