Published September 2020 by Park Row Books
Source: checked out from my local library
Margot Lee's mother is ignoring her calls. Margot can’t understand why, until she makes a surprise trip home to Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. Determined to discover the truth, Margot unravels her single mother’s past as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother, Mina. Thirty years earlier, Mina Lee steps off a plane to take a chance on a new life in America. Stacking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing she expects is to fall in love. But that moment leads to repercussions for Mina that echo through the decades, leading up to the truth of what happened the night of her death. Told through the intimate lens of a mother and daughter who have struggled all their lives to understand each other, The Last Story of Mina Lee is a powerful and exquisitely woven debut novel that explores identity, family, secrets, and what it truly means to belong.
Told in alternating chapters between Mina and Margot, Kim tells the story of Mina's immigrant experience and Margot's story of growing up the daughter of a single-mother, undocumented immigrant. Like so many books with dual narratives, Mina's story line is stronger than Margot's. It felt like Kim had the idea for Mina's story and designed Margot's piece as a vehicle to explore one piece of it.
Margot's present day story line requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief and lacks the passion and the emotional depth that Mina's story has, although Margot's story when she looks back on her life growing up with her mother has more emotional heft. It was easy to believe that Margot would have had incredibly mixed emotions growing up with a woman who didn't fit in in the country they live in and who seems to be completely consumed with working. As Margot tried to discover if her mother's death might have been something more than an accident, I enjoyed the "mystery-to-be-solved" element of the story, although some of the pieces felt a bit forced and I didn't care much for the piece that involved a police detective.
Mina's story is heartbreaking even before she arrives in the United States. Unfortunately, we know from the beginning that her life doesn't get better and ends sadly. It's an important story to explore right now as we struggle with what who we should allow to immigrate and how we treat (and mistreat) those who do.
As with so many relationship stories, so much of how the characters feel about each other has to do with a lack of communication. How might have Margot felt about her mother if she knew why her mother refused to learn English? It always makes me wonder, when I read books like this, what have I not said to the people I love that I should have said. There were so many times Margot's and Mina's relationship might have been different if Mina would have knocked on Mina's closed door or Margot would have learned Korean so it was easier for the two of them to communicate.