cover image The Last Story of Mina Lee

The Last Story of Mina Lee

Nancy Jooyoun Kim. Park Row, $27.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-77831-017-4

In Kim’s uneven debut, an unexpected death highlights both the rifts and the bonds in a mother-daughter relationship. Margot Lee, 26, figures she’ll stop in for an overdue visit with her mother, Mina, while she’s in Los Angeles helping a coworker relocate from Seattle. At the house, she finds her mother dead. The death was ruled accidental, but the circumstances gradually appear more suspicious as Margot uncovers Mina’s mementos and learns about her mother’s secrets, both long-buried and more recent. Margot’s investigations alternate with (and in some cases, awkwardly parallel) the story of Mina’s 1987 arrival in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, having fled Korea in the wake of a personal tragedy. Mina’s immigration story poignantly mingles optimism with the heartbreak of exploitation. The more contemporary portions of the narrative, however, lack both emotional pull and narrative conviction. Margot’s characterization feels flat, and her supposed artistic aspirations lack any sort of passion or urgency. Most problematic, however, is the mystery plot, which hinges not only on a series of fairly implausible coincidences but also on some unconvincing police work. As a personal immigration narrative Kim’s novel largely succeeds, but as a mystery novel or a mother-daughter drama it fails to connect. (Sept.)