Title: Please Look After Mom
Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Publication Date: April 5, 2011 (first US edition--originally published 2008)
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library
Plot Summary from Goodreads:
A million-plus-copy best seller in Korea—a magnificent English-language debut poised to become an international sensation—this is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.
You will never think of your mother the same way again after you read this book.
This month's country for the Around the World challenge is South Korea, and Please Look After Mom captured my interest for a few reasons. One, it's a modern-day novel set in that country--something I was having trouble finding (most of the fiction novels set in South Korea were more historical in nature). Two, it's a family drama, which is right up my alley. Shin's novel was huge overseas before it landed in the US two years ago, so I figured this was a great choice for this month's challenge.
Overall, I had mixed feelings about this one. In the end, I was left with that "meh" sensation that means I will probably forget about the book's details pretty quickly after reading. It wasn't unenjoyable, per se...but I felt like it centered on an event that could have easily hooked a reader through the entire novel, but didn't. Instead, Shin takes a more subtle and spiritual approach to the subject, and it left me shrugging my shoulders at the end.
The best thing about this book is the multiple-perspective narration. The novel begins in the second-person POV of Chi-hon, oldest daughter of the family. She introduces us to the sudden disappearance of her mother, and her (and her family's) immediate reaction to the crisis. The next part of the novel is told in the third-person by Hyong-chol, oldest son of the family. Then we get the second-person perspective of their father, and finally (before the epilogue) we get the first-person POV of the mother herself. So, not only are you getting the narration of different family members in the situation, but the mode of perspective (first, second, third person) changes drastically as well. I'm not sure I've ever read another novel that attempts to do this. It was a little disorienting at first, but it works. Each POV is so unique in how it approaches both the disappearance and the family's history, that by the end you get a very rich illustration of the complexities behind this family's dynamic. Shin took a big risk here, but it paid off.
Obviously, that isn't where the book lost me. I think there were two reasons why I felt underwhelmed by the end. First, as I mentioned before, the last third of the novel relied so heavily on subtlety and spirituality that I became disinterested. The section told from the mother's POV is disorienting and leaves a lot open to interpretation--too much, maybe. In the end, I was left feeling that the novel came to no real conclusion.
The second issue was that, despite the variety of perspectives, I started to feel like the information being conveyed was repetitive. As a reader, you are meant to see that once Mom disappears, the family brings to light all the regrets of how they treated her--and they also realize that they didn't fully know her as well as they thought they did. However, when these themes are repeated over and over in each section, it starts to get a bit tedious, and leans more towards feeling morose rather than emotionally moving.
Final verdict? I loved what Shin did here with perspective, but in the end I was left feeling like there was no real conclusion. Not to mention that the tone for the entire novel is pretty much a downer. Overall, not my fave. I needed more solidity...and maybe just a tiny glimmer of happiness in the end.