Editorial note: I received a copy of The Last Story of Mina Lee in exchange for a review.
The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim is a unique mother-daughter story.
This is a hard story to pin by genre—it’s both a mother-daughter saga and also a mystery. But the heartbeat of the novel is one woman’s experience as an immigrant in the U.S.
The Last Story of Mina Lee is quite heart-wrenching at times and truly has a melancholy feel throughout the entire novel. It’s not a spoiler to say that Mina’s story is quite tragic. However, the writing is strong and I ended up reading this in one sitting.
I mentioned this in my September book club picks post but I had a feeling that Reese would select this story for her book club. Again, I have been wrong about that before! However, this one is similar to some of the more serious stories she has picked. Although it still is very original. And even though you know the thread of the mystery holds the story together, I wasn’t always sure which direction it would take.
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.
An immigrant experience
I’m always fascinated by stories that feature the immigrant experience in the U.S. Especially as each is different and highlights both the positives and negatives of coming to the U.S. In the case of The Last Story of Mina Lee, Mina’s life is quite difficult even prior to coming to the U.S. She grew up as a Korean War orphan and when she becomes an adult, another tragedy in her life forces her to leave everything behind and start fresh in the U.S.
But the American dream is not so easy, especially for an undocumented immigrant. She knows very little English and feels quite lost in L.A. There are a lot of tough scenes with her adjustment period and she never truly feels like she fits in.
Coupled that with raising her daughter, Margot, who is very much an American child.
Margot discovers her mother is dead. And while the police believe it was an accident—she has her suspicions. Especially when she realizes that there’s more to her mother than she ever imagined.
I liked how the story was told from both Margot’s perspective in the present with Mina’s viewpoint in the past. I was quite engaged with learning more about Mina and her secrets. And through that we see glimpses of Mina and Margot’s complicated relationship.
There’s a lot of tragedy in The Last Story of Mina Lee. But it does feature a really great ending.
And there’s plenty to discuss with this story. Check out my book club questions here.