Please Look after Mom

( 98 )

Overview

MAN ASIAN LITERARY PRIZE WINNER

When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?
 
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives ...

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Overview

MAN ASIAN LITERARY PRIZE WINNER

When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?
 
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.

Winner of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In this unforgettable novel, an elderly Korean farmwoman who has vanished is remembered from the disparate perspectives of four family members. In South Korea, Please Look after Mom sold a million copies in its original edition. A Discover Great New Writers selection now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

Sessalee Hensley

From the Publisher

“A suspenseful, haunting, achingly lovely novel about the hidden lives, wishes, struggles and dreams of those we think we know best.” —Seattle Times

“A moving portrayal of the surprising nature, sudden sacrifices, and secret reveries of motherhood.” —Elle
 
“Intimate and hauntingly spare. . . . A raw tribute to the mysteries of motherhood.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Lovely. . . . Please Look After Mom, especially its magical, transcendent ending, lifts the spirit as only the best writing can do.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Shin renders a tender and beautiful portrait of South Korea, but the novel recognizes a familial dilemma experienced throughout the world.” –Ms. Magazine blog

“The most moving and accomplished, and often startling, novel in translation I’ve read in many seasons. . . . Every sentence is saturated in detail. . . . It tells an almost unbearably affecting story of remorse and belated wisdom that reminds us how globalism—at the human level—can tear souls apart and leave them uncertain of where to turn.” —Pico Iyer, Wall Street Journal

“The novel perfectly combines universal themes of love and loss, family dynamics, gender equality, tradition, and charity with the rich Korean culture and values which make Please Look After Mom a great literary masterpiece.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer
 
“An authentic, moving story that brings to vivid life the deep family connections that lie at the core of Korean culture. But it also speaks beautifully to an urgent issue of our time: migration, and how the movement of people from small towns and villages to big cities can cause heartbreak and even tragedy. This is a tapestry of family life that will be read all over the world. I loved this book.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
 
“Haunting. . . . The novel’s language—so formal in its simplicity—bestows a grace and solemnity on childhood scenes that might otherwise be overwrought. . . . Throughout the novel, the rhythms of agrarian life and labor that Shin deftly conveys have a subtle, cumulative power.” —Boston Sunday Globe
 
“An affecting account of a slow-burn family break-up. . . . Well-controlled and emotionally taut. . . . What distinguishes this novel is the way it questions whether our pasts, either public or private, are really available for us to recollect and treasure anyway.” —The Financial Times

“A captivating story, written with an understanding of the shortcomings of traditional ways of modern life. It is nostalgic but unsentimental, brutally well observed and, in this flawlessly smooth translation by Chi-Young Kim, it offers a sobering account of a vanished past. . . . We must hope there will be more translations to follow.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)

“A poignant story of a family told in four voices. . . . Shin’s storytelling and her gift for detail make Please Look After Mom a book worth reading.” —Post and Courier

“Shin perceptively explores the greatest mystery—not Mom’s disappearance, but who Mom really was. Every mom, that is.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Here is a wonderful, original new voice, by turns plangent and piquant. Please Look After Mom takes us on a dual journey, to the unfamiliar corners of a foreign culture and into the shadowy recesses of the heart.  In spare, exquisite prose, Kyung-sook Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.” —Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of March

“Shin is a scribe with a slow and steady pulse; this is writing that allows you to meander with your own thoughts (and reflect on your own mother, perhaps), while still following the physical and mental travels of her characters. . . . Plain and softy insistent eloquence.” —Hyphen Magazine
 
“Intriguing. . . . It is easy to see the source of this global popularity, for not only is Shin’s absorbing novel written with considerable grace and suspense, but she also has managed to tap into a universality: the inequitable relationship between a mother and her children.” —Bookpage
 
“An arresting account of the misunderstandings that can cloud the beauty of the affection and memories that bind two very different generations. . . . A touching story that effectively weaves the rural, ages-old lifestyle of a mother into the modern urban lives of her children.” —Newark Star-Ledger
 
“Here is a deeply felt journey into a culture foreign to many—yet with a theme that is universal in its appeal. A terrific novel that stayed with me long after I’d finished its final, haunting pages. This is a real discovery.” —Abraham Verghese, bestselling author of Cutting for Stone

Mythili G. Rao
Shin's prose, intimate and hauntingly spare in this translation by Chi-Young Kim, moves from first to second and third person, and powerfully conveys grief's bewildering immediacy…Passages of the novel may cause the grown children among Shin's readers to cringe…And yet this book isn't as interested in emotional manipulation as it is in the invisible chasms that open up between people who know one another best.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Shin's affecting English-language debut centers on the life of a hardworking, uncomplaining woman who goes missing in a bustling Seoul subway station. After Park So-nyo's disappearance, her grown children and her husband are filled with guilt and remorse at having taken So-nyo for granted and reflect, in a round-robin of narration, on her life and role in their lives. Having, through Mom's unstinting dedication, achieved professional success, her children understand for the first time the hardships she endured. Her irresponsible and harshly critical husband, meanwhile, finally acknowledges the depth of his love and the seriousness of her sacrifices for him. Narrating in her own voice late in the book, the spirit of Mom watches her family and finally voices her lifelong loneliness and depression and recalls the one secret in her life. As memories accrue, the narrative becomes increasingly poignant and psychologically revealing of all the characters, and though it does sometimes go soggy with pathos, most readers should find resonance in this family story, a runaway bestseller in Korea poised for a similar run here. (Apr.)
Library Journal
The Korean title of this indelible novel, Omma rul put'ak hae, contains a sense of commanding trust that is missing in its English translation: "I entrust Mommy [to you]." That trust is irreparably splintered when Mom disappears after becoming separated from her rushing husband on a busy Seoul Station platform. In four distinct voices, the character of Mom—a rural farmwoman whose "hands could nurture any life"—is reassembled by her eldest daughter, whose books Mom couldn't read; her eldest son, for whom she could never do enough; her husband, who never slowed down; and finally Mom herself as she wanders through memories both strange and familiar. Shin's breathtaking novel is an acute reminder of how easily a family can fracture, how little we truly know one another, and how desperate need can sometimes overshadow even the deepest love. VERDICT Already a prominent writer in Korea, Shin finally makes her English-language debut with what will appeal to all readers who appreciate compelling, page-turning prose. Stay tuned: Mom should be one of this year's most-deserving best sellers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/10.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews

A mother's disappearance exposes family consciences, secrets and dependencies in the soft-spoken first English-language publication by a bestselling South Korean novelist.

An enormous publishing success in South Korea, this simple portrait of a family shocked into acknowledging the strength and heroic self-sacrifice of the woman at its center is both universal and socially specific. Park So-nyo, the illiterate mother who disappeared at Seoul Station subway, separated from her husband by the pressing crowd, has devoted her life to her marriage and children, applying herself to multiple rural occupations while encouraging all her offspring, but in particular son Hyong-chol, to fulfill his academic potential. The narration by four different family members exposes guilt and insights all around, from unmarried daughter Chi-hon, a novelist, to Park So-nyo herself.

Partly a metaphor for Korea's social shift from rural to urban, partly an elegy to the intensity of family bonds as constructed and maintained by self-denying women, this is subdued, tender writing with only rare lapses into sentimentality.

The Barnes & Noble Review

From Katherine A. Powers's "A Reading Life" column on The Barnes & Noble Review


Is Mom taking over the universe? From Sarah Palin to Cindy Sheehan, from Amy "Tiger Mother" Chua to Michelle "First Mom" Obama, everywhere you look: there's Mom, throwing her weight around and telling us off one minute, defending and nurturing us the next. Simply put, we are living in the Age of Mom, and it seems entirely possible that her huge presence and growing power are behind the appearance in this country of Kyung-sook Shin's Please Look After Mom, the first of this acclaimed South Korean writer's novels to appear in English.

Park So-nyo, 69-year-old mother of five, has gone missing. Arriving in Seoul from the countryside with her husband of over 50 years to visit their children, she has been accidentally left behind on a crowded subway platform. Her husband, as he had throughout their married life, simply assumed she was following him. Well, this is the last time anyone takes Mom for granted. Now begins a search, carried out by her children and husband, that becomes an emotional, remorse-filled exploration of the past and a chastening discovery of the Mom nobody knew.

Poor Mom. Born in 1936, she was married off against her wishes at a young age to save her from being carried off in one of the frequent raids made by renegade North Korean soldiers after the end of the Korean conflict. After their marriage, her husband disappeared for long periods, leaving Mom to give birth to and provide for their growing number of children. This she managed by ceaseless toil and scrimping, to which she added further labor and sacrifice in order to scrape together the money to educate at least some of the children. Her own illiteracy was one of her greatest sorrows: "I lived in darkness," she reflects, "with no light, my whole life."

Mom subsumed her needs, no matter how pressing, to those of everyone else, a self-sacrifice that was a matter of will power, obdurate humility, and singular intransigence. She would not see a doctor until forced to despite occasions of serious illness. Indeed, for the last few years before her disappearance, she had been wracked by debilitating headaches and was increasingly prey to bouts of confusion. Alone in the city, she cannot survive on her own.

Needless to say, her loss makes everyone feel guilty as hell. Her eldest son excoriates himself for failing to meet his parents at the Seoul Station; instead, he had been at a sauna sweating out the previous night's booze. A daughter, now a well-known writer, recalls with dismay that she had been flipping through the pages of one of her own novels at a book fair when her mother was abandoned on that chaotic platform. As for Mom's husband: his sins are beyond counting. The days and weeks pass, and possible Mom-sightings are reported. A dirty, seemingly addled woman resembling So-nyo is spotted in places where her children had once lived after leaving the country.

It must be said this novel comes very close to being just plain maudlin; still, it is saved by a couple of elements. For one thing, much of the story, which is told from several points of view including Mom's, is pursued in the second person. The tactic produces a sense of immediacy and urgency which delivers a fine accusatory punch: "You'd meet to discuss how to find Mom and one of you would unexpectedly dig up the different ways someone else had wronged her in the past. The things that had been suppressed, that had been carefully avoided moment by moment, became bloated, and finally you all yelled and smoked and banged out the door in a rage."

Further, the gathering weight of Mom's sorrows and her family's shame, remorse, and pity are counterbalanced by the novel's concrete detail and Shin's storytelling shrewdness. Bit by bit, episodes from the past emerge to provide glimpses of So-nyo's unknown and surprising private life, as well as a picture of the rigors of a material world that has disappeared as far as her children are concerned. Events take place on the cusp of Korea's economic development, when, through ceaseless labor and self-denial, a pre-industrial generation squeezed from itself every ounce of surplus to produce an affluent modern one.

Shin describes a peasant way of life -- of scarcity confronted by heroic toil and frugality -- wonderfully. Scene after richly detailed scene shows planting, harvesting, cooking, and preserving; the primitive dwellings and the formidable nature of distance. Mom's indefatigable provision for her children continues even when they've moved to attend school in the city, three of them living in one rented room. Her eldest son remembers her arriving laden with bundles:

The side dishes that came out of the newspapers and plastic and squash leaves were moved onto plates and into bowls from the cupboard, and Mom brushed off her hands, quickly peeled the covers off the blankets, and washed them. She made kimchi with the salted cabbage she had brought, and scrubbed the pot that had turned black from the coal fire, and cleaned the portable stove until it shone, and sewed the covers back on the blankets after they dried in the sun on the roof, and washed rice and made bean-paste soup and set the table for supper…. When he and his siblings took a spoonful of rice, Mom placed a piece of stewed beef on each person's spoon. They urged her to eat, but she insisted, "I'm not hungry."

The novel pretty much pulls out all the stops on Momidolatry, including a culminating scene with Michelangelo's Pietà. But it's more than that: it is also the story of one particular family with its own history spread out and picked over in absorbing detail.




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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307739513
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/3/2012
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 98,177
  • Product dimensions: 7.94 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Kyung-Sook Shin is the author of numerous works of fiction and is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists. She was the first woman to be awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize (for Please Look After Mom), and she has also been honored with the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu. Please Look After Mom is her first book to appear in English. It will be published in twenty-nine countries and has sold over 2 million copies in South Korea alone.

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Read an Excerpt

1

Nobody Knows

It’s been one week since Mom went missing.

The family is gathered at your eldest brother Hyong-chol’s house, bouncing ideas off each other. You decide to make flyers and hand them out where Mom was last seen. The first thing to do, everyone agrees, is to draft a flyer. Of course, a flyer is an old-fashioned response to a crisis like this. But there are few things a missing person’s family can do, and the missing person is none other than your mom. All you can do is file a missing-person report, search the area, ask passersby if they have seen anyone who looks like her. Your younger brother, who owns an online clothing store, says he posted something about your mother’s disappearance, describing where she went missing; he uploaded her picture and asked people to contact the family if they’d seen her. You want to go look for her in places where you think she might be, but you know how she is: she can’t go anywhere by herself in this city. Hyong-chol designates you to write up the flyer, since you write for a living. You blush, as if you were caught doing something you shouldn’t. You aren’t sure how helpful your words will be in finding Mom.

When you write July 24, 1938, as Mom’s birth date, your father corrects you, saying that she was born in 1936. Official records show that she was born in 1938, but apparently she was born in 1936. This is the first time you’ve heard this. Your father says everyone did that, back in the day. Because many children didn’t survive their first three months, people raised them for a few years before making it official. When you’re about to rewrite “38” as “36,” Hyong-chol says you have to write 1938, because that’s the official date. You don’t think you need to be so precise when you’re only making homemade flyers and it isn’t like you’re at a government office. But you obediently cross out “36” and write “38,” wondering if July 24 is even Mom’s real birthday.

A few years ago, your mom said, “We don’t have to celebrate my birthday separately.” Father’s birthday is one month before Mom’s. You and your siblings always went to your parents’ house in Chongup for birthdays and other celebrations. All together, there were twenty-two people in the immediate family. Mom liked it when all of her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house. A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes. She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left. As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances. In the shed, Mom kept glass bottles of every size filled with plum or wild-strawberry juice, which she made seasonally. Mom’s jars were filled to the brim with tiny fermented croakerlike fish or anchovy paste or fermented clams that she was planning to send to the family in the city. When she heard that onions were good for one’s health, she made onion juice, and before winter came, she made pumpkin juice infused with licorice. Your mom’s house was like a factory; she prepared sauces and fermented bean paste and hulled rice, producing things for the family year-round. At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often. And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner. That was easier. Then Mom even suggested, “Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.” She said it would be a burden to celebrate their birthdays separately, since both happen during the hot summer, when there are also two ancestral rites only two days apart. At first the family refused to do that, even when Mom insisted on it, and if she balked at coming to the city, a few of you went home to celebrate with her. Then you all started to give Mom her birthday gift on Father’s birthday. Eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed. Mom, who liked to buy socks for everyone in the family, had in her dresser a growing collection of socks that her children didn’t take.

Name: Park So-nyo

Date of birth: July 24, 1938 (69 years old)

Appearance: Short, salt-and-pepper permed hair, prominent cheekbones, last seen wearing a sky-blue shirt, a white jacket, and a beige pleated skirt.

Last seen: Seoul Station subway

Nobody can decide which picture of Mom you should use. Everyone agrees it should be the most recent picture, but nobody has a recent picture of her. You remember that at some point Mom started to hate getting her picture taken. She would sneak away even for family portraits. The most recent photograph of Mom is a family picture taken at Father’s seventieth-birthday party. Mom looked nice in a pale-blue hanbok, with her hair done at a salon, and she was even wearing red lipstick. Your younger brother thinks your mom looks so different in this picture from the way she did right before she went missing. He doesn’t think people would identify her as the same person, even if her image is isolated and enlarged. He reports that when he posted this picture of her, people responded by saying, “Your mother is pretty, and she doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would get lost.” You all decide to see if anyone has another picture of Mom. Hyong-chol tells you to write something more on the flyer. When you stare at him, he tells you to think of better sentences, to tug on the reader’s heartstrings. Words that would tug on the reader’s heartstrings? When you write, Please help us find our mother, he says it’s too plain. When you write, Our mother is missing, he says that “mother” is too formal, and tells you to write “mom.” When you write, Our mom is missing, he decides it’s too childish. When you write, Please contact us if you see this person, he barks, “What kind of writer are you?” You can’t think of a single sentence that would satisfy Hyong-chol.

Your second-eldest brother says, “You’d tug on people’s heartstrings if you write that there will be a reward.”

When you write, We will reward you generously, your sister-in-law says you can’t write like that: people take notice only if you write a specific amount.

“So how much should I say?”

“One million won?”

“That’s not enough.”

“Three million won?”

“I think that’s too little, too.”

“Then five million won.”

Nobody complains about five million won. You write, We will reward you with five million won, and put in a period. Your second-eldest brother says you should write it as, Reward: 5 million won. Your younger brother tells you to put 5 million won in a bigger font. Everyone agrees to e-mail you a better picture of Mom if they find something. You’re in charge of adding more to the flyer and making copies, and your younger brother volunteers to pick them up and distribute them to everyone in the family. When you suggest, “We can hire someone to give out flyers,” Hyong-chol says, “We’re the ones who need to do that. We’ll give them out on our own if we have some free time during the week, and all together over the weekend.”

You grumble, “How will we ever find Mom at that rate?”

“We can’t just sit tight; we’re already doing everything we can,” Hyong-chol retorts.

“What do you mean, we’re doing everything we can?”

“We put ads in the newspaper.”

“So doing everything we can is buying ad space?”

“Then what do you want to do? Should we all quit work tomorrow and just roam around the city? If we could find Mom like that, I’d do it.”

You stop arguing with Hyong-chol, because you realize that you’re pushing him to take care of everything, as you always do. Leaving Father at Hyong-chol’s house, you all head home. If you don’t leave then, you will continue to argue. You’ve been doing that for the past week. You’d meet to discuss how to find Mom, and one of you would unexpectedly dig up the different ways someone else had wronged her in the past. The things that had been suppressed, that had been carefully avoided moment by moment, became bloated, and finally you all yelled and smoked and banged out the door in rage.

When you first heard Mom had gone missing, you angrily asked why nobody from your large family went to pick her and Father up at Seoul Station.

“And where were you?”

Me? You clammed up. You didn’t find out about Mom’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days. You all blamed each other for Mom’s going missing, and you all felt wounded.

Leaving Hyong-chol’s house, you take the subway home but get off at Seoul Station, which is where Mom vanished. So many people go by, brushing your shoulders, as you make your way to the spot where Mom was last seen. You look down at your watch. Three o’clock. The same time Mom was left behind. People shove past you as you stand on the platform where Mom was wrenched from Father’s grasp. Not a single person apologizes to you. People would have pushed by like that as your mom stood there, not knowing what to do.

How far back does one’s memory of someone go? Your memory of Mom?

Since you heard about Mom’s disappearance, you haven’t been able to focus on a single thought, besieged by long- forgotten memories unexpectedly popping up. And the regret that always trailed each memory. Years ago, a few days before you left your hometown for the big city, Mom took you to a clothing store at the market. You chose a plain dress, but she picked one with frills on the straps and hem. “What about this one?”

“No,” you said, pushing it away.

“Why not? Try it on.” Mom, young back then, opened her eyes wide, uncomprehending. The frilly dress was worlds away from the dirty towel that was always wrapped around Mom’s head, which, like other farming women, she wore to soak up the sweat on her brow as she worked.

“It’s childish.”

“Is it?” Mom said, but she held the dress up and kept examining it, as if she didn’t want to walk away. “I would try it on if I were you.”

Feeling bad that you’d called it childish, you said, “This isn’t even your style.”

Mom said, “No, I like these kinds of clothes, it’s just that I’ve never been able to wear them.”

I should have tried on that dress. You bend your legs and squat on the spot where Mom might have done the same. A few days after you insisted on buying the plain dress, you arrived at this very station with Mom. Holding your hand tightly, she strode through the sea of people in a way that would intimidate even the authoritative buildings looking on from above, and headed across the square to wait for Hyong-chol under the clock tower. How could someone like that be missing? As the headlights of the subway train enter the station, people rush forward, glancing at you sitting on the ground, perhaps irritated that you’re in the way.

As your mom’s hand got pulled away from Father’s, you were in China. You were with your fellow writers at the Beijing Book Fair. You were flipping through a Chinese translation of your book at a booth when your mom got lost in Seoul Station.

“Father, why didn’t you take a cab instead? This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t taken the subway!”

Father said he was thinking, Why take a taxi when the train station is connected to the subway station? There are moments one revisits after something happens, especially after something bad happens. Moments in which one thinks, I shouldn’t have done that. When Father told your siblings that he and Mom could get to Hyong-chol’s house by themselves, why did your siblings let them do that, unlike all the other times? When your parents came to visit, someone always went to Seoul Station or to the Express Bus Terminal to pick them up. What made Father, who always rode in a family member’s car or a taxi when he came to the city, decide to take the subway on that particular day? Mom and Father rushed toward the subway that had just arrived. Father got on the train, and when he looked behind him, Mom wasn’t there. Of all days, it was a busy Saturday afternoon. Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings. Father was holding Mom’s bag. So, when Mom was left alone in the subway station with nothing, you were leaving the book fair, headed toward Tiananmen Square. It was your third time in Beijing, but you hadn’t yet set foot in Tiananmen Square, had only gazed at it from inside a bus or a car. The student who was guiding your group offered to take you there before going to dinner, and your group decided it was a good idea. What would your mom have been doing by herself in Seoul Station as you got out of the cab in front of the Forbidden City? Your group walked into the Forbidden City but came right back out. That landmark was only partially open, because it was under construction, and it was almost closing time. The entire city of Beijing was under construction, to prepare for the Olympic Games the following year. You remembered the scene in The Last Emperor where the elderly Puyi returns to the Forbidden City, his childhood home, and shows a young tourist a box he had hidden in the throne. When he opens the lid of the box, his pet cricket from his youth is inside, still alive. When you were about to head over to Tiananmen Square, was your mom standing in the middle of the crowd, lost, being jostled? Was she waiting for someone to come get her? The road between the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square was under construction, too. You could see the square, but you could get there only through a convoluted maze. As you watched the kites floating in the sky in Tiananmen Square, your mom might have collapsed in the passageway in despair, calling out your name. As you watched the steel gates of Tiananmen Square open and a squadron of police march forth, legs raised high, to lower the red national flag with five stars, your mom might have been wandering through the maze inside Seoul Station. You know this to be true, because that’s what the people who were in the station at that time told you. They said they saw an old woman walking very slowly, sometimes sitting on the floor or standing vacantly by the escalators. Some saw an old woman sitting in the station for a long time, then getting on an arriving subway. A few hours after your mom disappeared, you and your group took a taxi through the nighttime city to bright, bustling Snack Street and, huddled under red lights, tasted 56-proof Chinese liquor and ate piping-hot crab sautéed in chili oil.

Father got off at the next stop and went back to Seoul Station, but Mom wasn’t there anymore.

“How could she get so lost just because she didn’t get on the same car? There are signs all over the place. Mother knows how to make a simple phone call. She could have called from a phone booth.” Your sister-in-law insisted that something had to have happened to your mom, that it didn’t make sense that she couldn’t find her own son’s house just because she failed to get on the same train as Father. Something happened to Mom. That was the view of someone who wanted to think of Mom as the old mom.

When you said, “Mom can get lost, you know,” your sister-in-law widened her eyes in surprise. “You know how Mom is these days,” you explained, and your sister-in-law made a face, as if she had no idea what you were talking about. But your family knew what Mom was like these days. And knew that you might not be able to find her.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Interviews & Essays

A conversation with Kyung-sook Shin, author of Please Look After Mom

Q: Please Look After Mom is written in four distinct voices: a daughter, a son, a father, and finally "Mom" herself. Why did you decide to structure the novel in this way? Which voice came to you first?

A: Human beings are multi-dimensional. But what we know about our mothers doesn't always tell the whole story of who they are. I wanted to show a 'Mom' who was a complex and profound human being. As it was impossible to do this in a single person's voice, I needed multiple narrators. In the novel, the voices of the daughter, son and father are narrated in the second person, "you" and the third person, "her". It's only the mother who uses the first person. I had in mind the fact that, when a woman becomes a mother, she no longer gets to speak or sometimes even think in terms of that "I". Of the four different voices in the book, the mother's is perhaps the most vivid and powerful. When I was writing it, it felt as though my mother's hand had held—even gripped—my authorial hand, so that she could tell her own story.

Q: This is an extremely personal novel, and readers will undoubtedly think about their relationship with their own mothers while reading. Did you draw on your relationship with your own family while writing the book?

A: My own family relationships do in fact make up the background, but the episodes in the novel were invented, or altered from reality. My own mother for example, thankfully, has never gone missing. But, speaking at a symbolic level, many mothers of our generation, I believe, have gone missing or remain neglected.

Q: Has your mother read this novel? If so, what did she think/say to you about it?

A: That she was proud of me for having written it.

Q: In Please Look After Mom, you beautifully describe many elements of Korean culture—the Full Moon Harvest, the food, clothing, etc.—that most Americans may not be familiar with. Are there any traditions that you are particularly excited to share with readers here?

A: The novel's various aspects of Korean culture came up naturally as I was describing the everyday life of the 'Mom' character. The Chuseok holiday, or the Full Moon Harvest, in Korea is similar to Thanksgiving in America. On that day, family members all over the country return to their hometowns. In order to show gratitude to our ancestors, offerings are prepared from the season's harvest. We also pay our respects at their gravesites. On a clear night, you can see the full moon on Chuseok. There's a popular saying that translates roughly to, "May your life be as plentiful and full of joy as a Chuseok night." It expresses the sentiment that the person's life will be as bright as the full moon during the harvest festival. Last year, I got to spend my first American Thanksgiving in New York. I was invited to have dinner by a friend who'd been living in New York for a long time. Turkey was served, of course, and I had a wonderful time sharing the meal with my host's family. Just as Americans celebrate the day over turkey, Koreans spend Chuseok sharing songpyeon, or half-moon shaped rice cakes, with their families. I was delighted by the similarities between the two holidays. Dining with someone, especially these days, isn't simply a matter of sating one's hunger—preparing a meal with someone and dining under the same roof is of course a way of connecting. You can drink tea with just anyone, but to dine with someone shows how close you are to that person. In my book, 'Mom' is always preparing warm meals, often to send them to family members living out in the city. I wanted food to play an important role in my book—a symbol of warmth that can't be expressed with words. I wish I could prepare for my American readers the many Korean dishes that appear in Please Look After Mom, so that we could share them together! But, moving beyond food, Korea has a number of beautifully elegant Buddhist temples, such as Hwaeomsa, Pusoksa and Haeinsa, and seowon (a kind of Confucian academy) such as Dosanseowon and Byungsanseowon. These are sacred and quiet spaces, containing the spirit and culture of the country. You should definitely pay them a visit if you are ever in Korea. If you have an interest in music, try listening to pansori, Korean traditional music, which contains a different resonance than Western harmonics, and expresses a distinctly Korean sorrow and humor.

Q: Your novel is being published in many countries and people around the world are identifying with the characters you have depicted. What are some of the universal truths of the relationship between mothers and children that you explore in the novel?

A: The line by Mom when she finds her mother's soul ("Did Mom know? That I, too, needed her my entire life?") expresses, I believe, a universal truth. When I'd written that sentence, I felt that the work was complete. We all need mothers, regardless of who we are. Even those who are currently mothers!

Q: One theme that runs throughout the novel is that of personal dreams versus sacrifice for family. Do you feel that this struggle is different for older and younger generations?

A: There's that old saying that God couldn't do everything himself, so he created mothers. No matter how much society advances, there's bound to be some gap between a woman's desire for self-actualization and her need to give of herself for her family. Of course, the situation has improved a great deal, but the dilemma persists. It still holds that one person's development comes from someone else's care and sacrifice: nothing and no one can replace a mother. I think humankind has been able to sustain itself because, at its center, there's this entity called, "Mom."

Q: You are now an extremely well-known and widely respected author in Korea. Has this fame dramatically changed your life, and your experience of being a writer? What kind of responses did the novel receive in Korea?

A: I published my first work of fiction in a Korean literary journal at twenty-two. From age sixteen to thirty, I was always working. I went to high school at night and worked during the day for a company that made stereo systems. When I was in college, I would tutor children, write and do research for the school newspaper, and read to those who'd suddenly gone blind. Even after my first book was published, I worked all sorts of jobs, any really, that would allow me to write: an editor at a publishing house, a writer for a classical radio station or for magazines, etc. My experience at these jobs provided vivid material for when it came time to write. But it was when I was about to turn thirty, when I published my second book, that people began to really pay attention. It was totally unexpected. The book was a collection of nine stories, and within six-months after it was published, 300,000 copies had been sold. It was the first time that a short-story collection had done so well in Korea. Everyone was surprised. For the next twenty years, my readers have stayed with me for every book I published. Thanks to their support, I have been able to live a life of great freedom, and to devote all of my time to writing. This was a dramatic shift for me. Writing and my personal life became like two sides of the same coin. Whatever I was experiencing at a personal level in Korean society, I tried novelizing to the most truthful and powerful extent possible, and my readers seemed to actively engage with my work and sympathize with it. Even today, I write a little every day without being tied down to anything else. I only feel free when I'm writing, and the best way I know how to give back for this invaluable freedom is to write in a way that engages people—and will make readers curious about what the next work will be like!

Q: Although this is your first book to be published in English, you've written numerous other works of fiction. When did you first begin to write and what topics were you drawn to?

A: I'm the product of my mother's influence. My mother would look so happy when she saw me reading a book. I started out reading to bring more happiness to my mother, who always looked so tired. Even before I was ten, it was my dream to become a writer. I began writing fiction on my own when I was in high school. Of course, it was an exercise more than anything. I wrote in any form I wanted—stories, essays, poems—pieces where often, the beginning didn't even fit with the end. I was a young girl who'd moved to Seoul from the countryside. I lied about my age to get a job at a company. Back then, South Korea was an industrial society and not yet a democracy, and there were disputes between the workers and the company, demonstrations almost every day. Hearing cries of protest from outside, I would lay out my notebook on the conveyor belt and write. Writing was what got me through those years; five years later, I formally made my debut as a writer.

I wrote, wanting to produce a work that expressed human beauty and its almost magical strength even when confronted with the most tragic situations. I wanted, too, to write about respect and compassion for life. Now that I am older I have these same hopes. But I also hope that after they read my works, readers will be seized by the longing to remember and see again someone they'd forgotten, or some aspect of life they may have overlooked. Whenever I see people drowning in suffering and sadness, I feel a strong compulsion to return to my writing. I would like for my work to in a way play a maternal role, of standing by those who feel sorrow, whether it is of social or personal origin.

Q: Tell us more about your writing habits. When and where do you like to write?

A: I like best to write from 3 in the morning till 9 in the morning. I like the feeling of writing in darkness and working myself, little by little, towards light. One of my habits as I write is that I often wash my hands in cold water.

Q: Is there a message that you hope readers take away from Please Look After Mom?

A: I'll point you to the novel's epigraph, by Franz Liszt: "Love, so long as you can love." And I'd hope you'd remember, and realize again the plain truth that your mother was not born that way, that she too had to become a mother. Taking the time to think about your mother might also mean taking the time to think about yourself. If anyone wants to call his or her mother after reading this book, it would please me very much.

Q: Lastly, you are living here in the U.S. this year, studying at Columbia. What have you enjoyed most about living in New York?

A: I'm very much enjoying the tremendous variety of culture New York has to offer: MoMA, The Guggenheim, The Met, The Frick, The Morgan Library, The Whitney. I'm also visiting small galleries in Chelsea. I've been going to the opera, theater, musicals, the ballet and the cinema. I'm also trying all sorts of cuisines. Restaurants from all of the world seem to be gathered in New York. The beauty, spectacle and drama that echoes at the Metropolitan Opera, especially, is something you can't get in Korea, so I have acquired season tickets. But, "culture" is everywhere here; the streets of Manhattan themselves feel like theater. When I'm strolling around, I always have the pleasure of finding something new that I didn't notice the day before.

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Reading Group Guide

1. While second-person (“you”) narration is an uncommon mode, it is used throughout the novel’s first section (the tale of the daughter, Chi-hon) and third section (the tale of the husband). What is the effect of this choice? How does it reflect these characters’ feelings about Mom? Why do you think Mom is the only character who tells her story in the first person?

2. What do we learn about the relationship between Chi-hon and her mother? What are the particular sources of tension or resentment between them? Why does Chi-hon say to her brother, “Maybe I’m being punished . . .” (p. 73)?

3. Why is it significant that Chi-hon is a successful writer, and how does her career affect her position in the family? What does this mean for her relationship to her mother, who is illiterate? How does it happen that her mother begins to treat Chi-hon like “a guest” when she visits home (p. 18)?

4. Mom’s life has been defined by her relationships to others and the needs of her family. When her daughter asks her, “Did you like to cook?” how does Mom’s reply summarize the divide between her own and her daughter’s generations (p. 60)? How is the generational gap between you and your parents, and/or you and your children, at all similar to, or different from, this one?

5. What are some of the reasons for the special bond between the eldest son, Hyong-chol, and his mother?

6. Why does Hyong-chol feel that he has disappointed his mother? Why does she apologize to him when she brings Chi-hon to live with him (p. 95)? Why do you think he hasn’t achieved his goals (p. 119)?

7. Why is food such a powerful element in Hyong-chol’s memories of his mother?

8. How do you explain the fact that Mom has been seen by various people wearing blue plastic sandals, with her foot badly injured, although when she disappeared she was wearing low-heeled beige sandals (pp. 68, 77, 78, 96, 97)? What do you make of the pharmacist’s story of treating her wounded foot and calling the police (pp. 106–107)? Does Mom’s own narrative solve this mystery?

9. The Full Moon Harvest is a festival in which Koreans traditionally return to their family home to honor their ancestors. Hyong-chol reflects that people are now beginning to take holidays out of the country instead, saying, “Ancestors, I’ll be back” (p. 98). What feelings do memories of their mother’s preparations for the festival stir up in Chi-hon, Hyong-chol, and their father (pp. 98–104)?

10. Weeks after his wife disappears, her husband discovers that for ten years she has been giving a substantial amount of money—money their children send her each month—to an orphanage where she has taken on many responsibilities (pp. 124–30). How does the husband react to this and other surprising discoveries about her life?

11. After Mom has gone missing, her husband says to himself, “Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart” (p. 131). Discuss the pain and regret Mom’s family feels, including in the context of the book’s epigraph from Franz Liszt, “O love, as long as you can love.” Have they followed this edict successfully? Why do you think Kyung-sook Shin chose this quote to open her story?

12. Taking out the burial shrouds his wife had made for the two of them, her husband remembers her wish that he die first: “Since you’re three years older than me, you should leave three years earlier” (p. 144). What is the effect of the way this passage moves from poignancy to humor and back again? Similarly, how do grief and warmth, even happiness, intertwine as he recalls his wife’s generosity and her hands applying a warm towel to his arthritic knee (p. 150)?

13. Do you think Mom’s husband and children would have been able to help her if they had paid her and her illness more attention? Or, given her aversion to the hospital and the way she hid her sickness, was what happens to her inevitable?

14. Discuss the return of Mom as storyteller and narrator in the fourth section. What is inventive about this choice on the author’s part? What surprised you—and what remained a mystery?

15. How does Mom’s feeling for her younger daughter differ from her feeling for Chi-hon? Why was she able to be more attached to the younger daughter than the elder one (pp. 193-97)? How is the use of the second person here—Mom addressing her daughter as “you”—different from the use of second person in chapters 1 and 3?

16. What do her children and husband discover about Mom’s life only after she disappears? How do her actions express her generosity and benevolence? Do you see some of her activities as ways of seeking self-fulfillment? Was she, through giving to others, taking care of herself?

17. What are we to understand of the fact of Mom’s possibly being spotted, in chapter 2 (“I’m Sorry, Hyong-chol”), in the various neighborhoods where Hyong-chol has lived in Seoul?  In Mom’s own narrative (chapter 4, “Another Woman”), what is the connection between herself and the bird her daughter sees “sitting on the quince tree” (p. 188; see also p. 182).

18. At the end of the father’s section, he says to his older daughter, “Please . . . please look after your mom” (p. 176). How does Chi-hon carry out this directive? How is it related to her feelings about the Pietà and her purchase of “rosewood rosary beads” at the Vatican (pp. 250–54)?

19. What are the details and cultural references that make this story particularly Korean? What elements make it universal?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 98 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(51)

4 Star

(23)

3 Star

(10)

2 Star

(9)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 99 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 25, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    This is an intriguing look at a Korean family

    In an overly crowded Seoul subway station, Park So-nyo becomes separated from her husband rushing to make a train. A rural farmer who is totally lost in the big city Park vanishes.

    Her spouse and adult children panic as mom's steady consistency is the magnet that kept the family together. Each of Park's family feel guilt for taking her for granted as they all assume she will always be there. Her spouse who has never had a kind word for his rural wife realizes how much she means to him and how she ignored her desires to be there for him. Her daughter who thought her mom was an illiterate barbarian who could not read a book misses her as she fondly recalls how her mother encouraged her to read and be much more. Her son who treated her with disdain as he made demands of his mom wants to make amends for his treatment of her. Meanwhile mom wanders the city while recalling her family's embarrassment and disdain of her for being a throwback from a previous century.

    This is an intriguing look at a Korean family who could be any ethnic group in which taking for granted a loved one until you lose what turns out to be most cherished is a common fault. The husband and two children were embarrassed by their mom until she vanishes; now they're worried and remorseful while mom reflects back on her loneliness due to her performing her motherhood duty. Filled with pathos and a strong underlying message to cherish those you love before it is too late, readers will relish this profound tale made even more poignant by the rotating viewpoint.

    Harriet Klausner

    25 out of 25 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 16, 2011

    a worthwhile read

    beautiful story of how we often don't appreciate something until its gone !
    we can all learn from the story of this family's tragedy.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2011

    Oh my...

    This story is so sad... I cried so much. It reminded me of my mother. People, you must read this story. This story will move you so much, you will actually bring back the past in front of you. Thank you so much, Korean author. Thank you.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 12, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    An amazing read

    Please Look After Mom is an amazing read and one of the best books that I've read in a long time. While on the surface it is a story about an older South Korean woman, it is really a story about love, parenthood, sacrifice, and family. It's message is universal - read the book and share it with people that you love.

    ISBN-10: 9780307593917 - Hardcover
    Publisher: Knopf (April 5, 2011), 256 pages.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2011

    Powerful and Poignant!

    Grippping from the beginning. A 'must read' for all genders.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2011

    It is awesome masterpiece!

    really great story I could recommend without hesitation.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 3, 2011

    Wonderful!

    This is a beautiful, very well written story about family and especially a mother's love and sacrifice. It kept me interested right up to the tearjerking end.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 6, 2011

    Wonderful

    I like this book. This book was so sad and made me about my parents.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2012

    Perfectly Beautiful

    When I started this book I wasn't sure if it was something that would hold my interest. However, I continued reading and soon became enthralled with the story of this very special woman. Too often I finish a book and immediately forget plot lines and characters. This does not hold true for Please Look After Mother. I am still haunted by the beauty of the writing and the strength of it's main character. Her love of family is true and deep and I grew to love this cantankerous, determined lady. The translation may make a few sentences awkward, but don't let that put you off. This book is very special and will stay with you for a long time.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 14, 2011

    Highly recommended... a fascinating book.

    I really enjoyed this book. It made me tear at some points and really take a good look at my relationship with my mother. This is an amazing book that really draws you in from the first page. Highly recommended!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2011

    Powerful Message

    I wanted to read this book to explore the inner workings of a Korean family. My surprise was that Ms Shin's deeply emotional story transcends culture and nationality and touches sons, daughters, wives and mothers universally. I felt myself experiencing the daughter's neglect and the mother 's love and sacrifice and I was deeply moved. Kudos to Ms Shin, she is very insiteful and expresses the human spirit in a powerful story. I recommend this read to all.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 28, 2011

    Love it

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2014

    don't overlook it

    Very good!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2014

    Uplifting, Heartbreaking

    This novel is magic. The author writes with the beauty and clarity of spring water. She brings every image crisply to mind, and brings out the truth in every character's heart. I wanted to go and live in Mom's world for a while, to harvest, prepare, and preserve food as her author does images and emotions. What a gift!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 16, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I just couldn't get into it, but heard great things.

    I tried to read this book, but I just couldn't immerse myself. I'm disappointed because while I was in South Korea, there was a lot of talk about the book and author. There wasn't any one thing that detracted me, but I just couldn't get into the book and want to read it. It was more of a chore and not enjoyable.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2014

    I enjoyed this book very much and appreciated the writing style

    I enjoyed this book very much and appreciated the writing style and a look a life in Korea.  Having lived in Japan I had even more of an interest.  but, I waited through the book to get the answer as to where Mom went/.  At the end death was assumed, but would have liked more answers as to what happened to her. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    I think adults would understand the writing of this author.Very good story about relationship of children and Mother. I would read another book by this author and very good book for discussion in book club.Good insight into korean way way of life and I enjoyed the book.

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  • Posted March 1, 2013

    The Giving Tree Meets The Good Earth

    The unique point of view makes this book. My heart breaks even more for Mom's quietly frantic, guilty, and repentant family as much as it does for Mom, who actually lived a meaningful, authentic, and even joyous life.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013

    Heylo..

    Heylo..

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2013

    Sex to girls

    Sex

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 99 Customer Reviews

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