Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s first novel The Last Story of Mina Lee is a thoughtful, heart-wrenching dive into the story of a mother and daughter. When Margot Lee’s mother–the eponymous Mina Lee–stops answering her phone, Margot wonders what could have happened. Until she drives to Los Angeles and finds her mother’s body in the apartment they had shared.
From here, the narrative shifts perspectives between Margot in the present day, desperate to find answers about her mother, to Mina in her first year in the United States as she struggles to find work, a refuge of the Korean War and an undocumented immigrant. Back and forth, the story teases out the threads of these two women’s lives.
It is in many ways a familiar tale, an immigrant mother and her American daughter who had always struggled to understand each other. But the added puzzle surrounding Mina’s mysterious death and depth of character that the author layers onto each as they struggle through the ordinary and the extraordinary keep the novel moving along — an altercation at the grocery store where Mina works, Margot’s frantic calls to the detective working her mother’s case, Mina and her secret grief (no spoilers), Margot and a life spent looking backwards.
On the drive back, her mother had seemed so utterly deflated that Margot didn’t have the courage to ask why they had driven so far. She always assumed that her mother didn’t want to talk about the things that hurt her. But maybe Margot was wrong about that. Maybe now as an adult, she was growing into a woman who could understand and support her mother, despite the different languages they knew.
I get tired, sometimes, of the back and forth narrative, split between two characters. But something about the desperation, of varying kinds, of our two protagonists kept me going. And in the end, this was a one-sitting book for me, let that stand in as the review.