Challenges / Contemporary Fiction / Highly Recommended / New to Me Author

Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

momPlease Look After Mom is a widely acclaimed Korean novel by Kyung-Sook Shin, which tells the story of a family who lose their mother in a Seoul subway station.  Park So-Nyo is an elderly wife and mother of five who gets separated from her husband in a crowded station and disappears.  The family’s efforts to find her are described from the perspectives of her son, her daughter and her husband.  We experience not only their sense of loss and their treasured memories, but also the conflicts that come with any close family relationship.

A portrait of “Mom” emerges – she’s a mother with high expectations who spends her life feeding and caring for her children and husband, often at the expense of her own needs.  She’s been struggling with severe headaches, and it seems likely that she’s lost “mentally” as well as physically.  Everyone in the family struggles with not being a good enough son/daughter/husband to Mom, and wondering whether they’ll have the chance to make it up to her.

Obviously this is a book that will make you think a lot about your own family.  If someone you loved disappeared, what would you do?  How would you look for them?  What amount of effort and sacrifice would be enough?  And what regrets would you have about your relationship?

I tend to avoid books and movies I think fall into the category of “emotionally manipulative” and at first I worried about that with this book, but I found it raised so many questions and issues that it really rose above the tear-jerker “you don’t know how much you love someone until you might lose them” kind of story.

This novel asks a lot of tough questions, not only about family relationships, but about motherhood itself.  Is this generation of mothers different from the ones that went before us?  Are we more focused on our own happiness versus sacrificing for the needs of our family?  Or, is our pursuit of “happiness” a function of economic stability rather than a generational change?

I expect this is a very different read if you’re a mother yourself.  I couldn’t experience the book in that way — but I can tell you the ideas of sacrifice and putting your children above yourself are things I thought about when deciding whether to have children.

An issue I found compelling was whether motherhood means taking care of everyone else in the family but yourself – is that noble self-sacrifice or unfair to the family?  Is the family willfully blind to her health concerns, or does Mom go too far in resisting any kind of help?

The siblings wonder whether Mom’s life has been a happy one, and this book has no easy answers.  Does motherhood mean not being seen as an individual?  Do we ever really know our parents?

Much of the book is written in second person, which I found distracting from an otherwise well-written and thought-provoking story.  Why are two sections written in second person and one in third?  Who is the narrator?

I enjoyed reading about the holidays, food, and culture of Korea.  The setting is different but the themes are universal – love, family, home, food, parenting.  The book is translated from Korean, so I did wonder at times whether the parts that were difficult to understand may have been a translation issue.  That didn’t happen often.

I’m being pretty restrained so I don’t tell you too much.  This would be a great book to discuss in a book club so you could really get at all the different issues.  I imagine people react to this book in very different, but very personal ways.  An excellent read.

11 thoughts on “Review: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

  1. I really enjoyed this book when I read it last year. It made me want to call my mother every day I was reading the book! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think motherhood, like so much in life, needs to be a balancing act, which I know I haven’t figured out. But much of this book was a tribute and recognition by the family members of how much this woman/wife/mother/sister/neighbor did do. Glad you enjoyed it!

    • Thanks for the comment! This was a wonderful book, and the more I think about it the more layered it seems. I honestly don’t know how parents do the balancing thing. I suppose it’s inevitable that you lean too far in one direction or the other.

  2. As a person who has lived in South Korea for many years now, I think this book is an incredible portrait of Korean society. It shows the disconnect and differences between the Korean War Generation and the current generations. I remember once I asked a Korean friend of mine whose parents are in their 70s if she thought her parents lived happy, contented lives. She told me, “I don’t think my parents ever considered happiness. They educated themselves and worked hard to provide everything they could for my brother and I. And then they were old and had to retire and just try now to maintain their livelihoods. Happiness was never an option; only sacrifice was.” I think that from the Korean perspective, the mother in this book is nothing short of heroic and nearly perfect.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment! I know I can’t help but view this book through an American lens. It’s important to me to understand how Korean culture influences the themes in this book.

  3. I had heard of this book, but this is the first time I’ve really wanted to read it. It sounds like it raises a lot of important questions about the bonds between mothers and children. Thanks for a great review!

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