Review: The Last Story of Mina Lee

Margot Lee’s mother, Mina, isn’t returning her calls. It’s a mystery to twenty-six-year-old Margot, until she visits her childhood apartment in Koreatown, LA, and finds that her mother has suspiciously died. The discovery sends Margot digging through the past, unraveling the tenuous invisible strings that held together her single mother’s life as a Korean War orphan and an undocumented immigrant, only to realize how little she truly knew about her mother. Interwoven with Margot’s present-day search is Mina’s story of her first year in Los Angeles as she navigates the promises and perils of the American myth of reinvention. While she’s barely earning a living by stocking shelves at a Korean grocery store, the last thing Mina ever expects is to fall in love. But that love story sets in motion a series of events that have consequences for years to come, 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.

Summary from Goodreads
  • Title: The Last Story of Mina Lee 
  • Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
  • Publisher: Park Row 
  • Genre: Own-voices, Adult Fiction, Contemporary
  • Age Range: Adult
  • Representation: Korean main characters, gay side character 
  • Trigger warnings: Death (parental death), cancer, sexual assault, stalking
  • Rating:  ★★★★★

I’m honestly not sure where to begin with this review. I’d been intrigued by the premise of this book, but couldn’t have expected to love it as much as I do. I was hooked from the first page, and simply didn’t want it to end. I remember texting my friend partway through saying that it took me an hour to get through 12% of the book because I kept stopping to cry. 

As an Asian immigrant, who was raised by a single mother, this book really hit home. I found the story and dynamic of Margot and her mother, Mina, to be so relatable. The dichotomy between being too Westernized or not Westernized enough was a struggle that I know all too well. It made me reevaluate my own identity, and my relationship with my own mother. Learning about Mina’s struggles to assimilate into a society that didn’t care for her, didn’t want her, and how hard she worked was heartbreaking, and necessary. I felt like Margot’s “ungratefulness” to her mother might come off annoying, or whiny, but it felt all too real to me. I saw so much of a younger version of myself in Margot, who didn’t understand why things were this way; why her mother clung to tradition and was so harsh on her. 

“Margot remembered when she had moved to Seattle eight years ago and made her first white friends – people who seemed to navigate their identities, their skin tones, their appearances so easily, in such an invisible way, as if the world had been created for them, which in a sense, it had. Many of them-with their blue eyes and tall noses-appeared intrinsically attractive because even white people who weren’t supermodels were at least white. She didn’t want to think that way since theoretically, it made no sense. 

Beauty is a construct, but theory is not the reality we live, she thought. Theory didn’t live in the bones. Theory didn’t erase the years of self-scrutiny in a mirror and not seeing anyone at all, not a protagonist or a beauty, only a television sidekick, a speechless creature, who at best was “exotic,” desirable but simple and foreign. Growing up, she had often wondered, If only I had bigger eyes or brown hair instead of black. If only…”

The Last Story of Mina Lee is a story of identity, and family, a mystery thriller wrapped into one, with wonderful prose. It’s an ode to culture, and to food. Subtle Asian Traits has a recurring joke about how immigrant families express their love through food: plates of cut fruit are dropped off instead of “I’m Sorry”, “you should eat more” is told instead of an “I love you”, and The Last Story of Mina Lee is a love story to food in its own way. 

In this country, it was easier to harm someone else than to stay alive. It was easier to take a life than to have one. Was she finally an American?

By interweaving Margot’s present day search for the truth about her mother, and Mina’s journey during her first year in Los Angeles, we get to learn and feel so much more for both Mina and Margot. I was so enthralled by Mina and Margot’s stories that I almost forgot about the mystery behind it all; at times I would try to guess certain plot points, but each time I was pleasantly surprised – the twists and turns were really well done. What was most heartbreaking, is that Mina and Margot both never got the chance to fully understand each other; only us, the reader, understood how much they loved one another, and how little they knew of the other. The Last Story of Mina Lee broke my heart and pieced it back together.  I simply cannot stop thinking about it’s heartbreaking prose. 

I found Margot’s relationship with Jonathan unnecessary – especially since he didn’t seem to have too much to do with the plot, and I’m generally uncomfortable with relationships with large age-gaps. Overall, I thought this book was so well written, and is definitely one of my favorite 2020 reads. 

Goodreads | TheStorygraph | Bookshop | Indie Bound

About the Author

Nancy Jooyoun Kim is the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Story of Mina Lee, a Reese’s Book Club pick. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, NPR/PRI’s Selected Shorts, Salon, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Follow Nancy: Website | Goodreads | Instagram | Twitter 

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