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In this radiant memoir of her grandmother's life, Lee recreates a culture that is both seductively exotic and strangely familiar. Lee's desire to recover the family's history, as well as to understand the intricate weave of her own identity, results in the exploration of universal issues such as the complex nature of family relations and the rapidly changing lives of women in this century. of photos.
Lee opens her first-person biography of her grandmother, Hongyong Baek, with a telling fraction of her own story—an all-American California girl, slightly uncomfortable with her grandmother's Korean outlook, who travels to Korea, Hong Kong, and China to trace her roots. But Lee's mannered naïveté about her family's past seems at least in part a narrative device to stir curiosity about her grandmother's life. Likewise, her simplistically novelized recreation of that life is a strategy to acclimate the reader, albeit at the risk of losing sight of history. Lee successfully grounds such matters as her grandmother's pampered childhood and arranged marriage within the context of Korean culture, vividly illuminating family relationships, power struggles, and the realities of daily life in pre-Communist Korea. But the irritating imagined sections, with stilted dialogue and interior musings—such as Hongyong's marriage ceremony and her wedding night—are extravagantly intimate and unsatisfying. Nor does Lee seem to have full command of the background to the family's exile to China, where Hongyong entrepreneurially took up opium smuggling (and the healing art of Chiryo), nor to her grandmother's persecution under the North Korean Communist regime for converting to Christianity. Lee incorporates little sense of history beyond vague sentiments and a few important dates; the Japanese occupation and the Communist regime dwindle into a hazy background. Only with the Korean war is there a sense of living through history as Hongyong and her four youngest children make the harrowing trek south as refugees.
The human interest of Hongyong's story is compelling, but its treatment will likely strike readers as incomplete.