four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
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missing imageSouth Korean novelist and short story writer Kyung-sook Shin is relatively unknown in the United States. Please Look After Mom, her sixth novel, has sold over one million copies in South Korea. Although previous works have been translated into Japanese, Chinese, German, and French, this is the first of her books to be translated into English.

The Story: An elderly country woman, Park So-nyo, disappears in a crowded subway station while visiting her grown children in Seoul, and her family members struggle with guilt and self-reproach over their conduct towards her as they print fliers and follow up on clues. They each tell their own story. First, So-nyo's eldest daughter, a self-absorbed writer, torments herself by reliving the times she ignored her mother's needs. Then Chi-hon, the favorite son, desolately mulls over his lack of gratitude for her many sacrifices, and her drunken, philandering husband repents his angry words and cruel deeds. Revelations follow, laying out how the secrets of the past have given rise to the present.
Knopf. 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780307593917

Seattle Post-Intelligencer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The contrast between old and new in South Korea is ... seen in the mother's day-to-day life in the country and the lives of her children, who represent the future. The novel perfectly combines universal themes of love and loss, family dynamics, gender equality, tradition, and charity with the rich Korean culture and values which make Please Look After Mom a great literary masterpiece." Lesley Slack

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"It is a strange novel; as plain as its childish title suggests in many ways, but also sinuous and elusive. ... The novel's language--so formal in its simplicity--bestows a grace and solemnity on childhood scenes that might otherwise be overwrought." Anna Mundow

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"This heartbreaking, yet joyous novel is Kyung-sook Shin's first to appear in English. You could say it marks a first, loving gift to readers of English. ... Please Look After Mom, especially its magical, transcendent ending, lifts the spirit as only the best writing can do." Anthony Bukoski

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"By the end of the book Ms. Shin has been canny enough to make even Mom feel pangs of tearful love for her own Mom. And she has turned the book's title, which initially sounded like an order, into something much more powerful: a prayer." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Shin's prose, intimate and hauntingly spare in this translation by Chi-Young Kim, moves from first to second and third person, and powerfully conveys grief's bewildering immediacy. ... This book isn't as interested in emotional manipulation as it is in the invisible chasms that open up between people who know one another best." Mythili G. Rao

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Please Look After Mom ... is a suspenseful, haunting, achingly lovely novel about the hidden lives, wishes, struggles and dreams of those we think we know best. ... There are few ways to describe this story that don't involve the word ‘devastating.'" Karen Gaudette

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The picture that emerges, of an unappreciated mother who sacrificed her life for her family, is a tediously familiar one. But despite the stock characters--and Shin's regrettable forays into pathos--the story somehow works, redeemed by the resolute So-nyo ... a woman her husband and children never knew." Tina Jordan

Critical Summary

Readers are forewarned: make sure you have tissues nearby. This heartbreaking novel is a tearjerker. Shin's powerful tribute to the mysteries of motherhood movingly recreates the complicated life of a family through the fragmented recollections of its members. The critics marveled at Shin's spare and unsentimental prose, which takes on new eloquence when juxtaposed with the raw emotions of her characters. Also of note was the fascinating window that Shin opens into the culture and conventions of South Korea and the disconnection and loss of identity suffered in a standardized urban environment. But the most important aspect of reading this graceful and touching novel is that you may never look at your mother in quite the same way again.