Note - I finished Please Look after Mom in one week. That's not exactly impressive when I remember how I used to stay up all night, finishing a book within 24 hours. However, times have changed, and nowadays it can take me 3-4 months to finish a book. With this particular book, I stumbled onto the perfect combination of urgency (a library book with a short loan and no renewals), opportunity (a long weekend and some long commutes) and interest.
Please Look after Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
The book opens with the main character, Park So-nyo, going missing from a Seoul subway station. She is traveling, with her husband, to visit her adult children. The train door shuts between her and her husband, separating them and leaving her alone on the platform.
The rest of the book volleys back and forth between the perspectives of Park So-nyo, her children and her husband. Their interactions, thoughts and reminiscences throw the overlooked and suppressed nuances of the family's life into high relief.
This forced recollection transforms every member of the family. The oldest son goes from successful businessman to uncertain middle-aged man. The oldest daughter moves from arrogant writer to insecure recluse. The youngest daughter becomes a weary mother rather than deliberate, career woman. The father starts out out oblivious but becomes remorseful. However, it's the mother's story told with a powerful brevity, which weaves together the family's loose threads.
Park So-nyo transitions from a distant, demanding mother to a stroke survivor, secret benefactor and platonic lover, to name some of the revelations. One particularly engrossing discovery involves Park So-nyo's relationship with her brother-in-law. As an only child, she eagerly serves as a nurturing, older sister to her young brother-in-law, and he becomes a devoted brother to her. As a result, fifty years later, she still quietly mourns his loss.
When I first finished the book, I was disappointed. The ending seemed abrupt. Though upon further consideration, I believe the conclusion reflects the book's convention. Stories of real families don't wrap up neatly, but at their best, they're rich enough to create something meaningful out of the uncertainty.
Readalikes (If you liked...)
If you liked the sparse, concise style of Please Look after Mom, you might like The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa.
If you liked delving into the intricacies of Park So-nyo's life and that of her family, you might like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield or The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.