BOOK REVIEW | “The Story of Mina Lee” by Nancy Jooyoun Kim
“The Last Story of Mina Lee,” Nancy Jooyoun Kim’s debut novel, is a moving account told from two perspectives in two different time periods— it follows Mina, who immigrated from Korea to Los Angeles in the ‘80s, and Margot, Mina’s daughter who returns to LA in 2014 after living in Seattle for work. Mina and Margot are completely different and struggle to understand each other due to cultural and language barriers.
Mina experienced a life of tragedy in Korea and struggles to adapt to life in America, but for Margot, life in America is all she’s ever known. The two remain distant from each other since Mina continues living in LA while Margot lives in Seattle— they both lose touch with one another, only speaking over the phone to check up every once in a while. However, everything changes when Margot visits LA to check on her mom, but uncovers Mina’s dead body in her apartment. The incident is shocking for Margot, partly because the cause of death is a mystery, yet also because it causes Margot to realize how little she knew about her own mother’s life.
The story alternates each chapter to tell both Mina’s and Margot’s stories of self-discovery. Half of the chapters take place in the ‘80s and follow Mina as she adapts to life in America, working low-wage jobs and ultimately falling in love with a co-worker. The other chapters take place in 2014 and follow Margot as she seeks to uncover the mystery behind her mother’s untimely death, and as she ultimately learns more about Mina and her Korean heritage in the process.
“The Last Story of Mina Lee” captures the emotions of its characters in an impactful way. Mina’s hardships with navigating a new country and Margot’s desire to learn more about her mother are engaging plot lines, particularly because Mina is a figure Margot felt so disconnected to growing up. She pitied Mina due to her poverty and inability to mold to American culture, but finding out more about her mother’s past helps Margot understand why Mina made the decisions she did.
The story takes place in Koreatown, and provides vivid descriptions of the neighborhood’s blending of Asian and Latino cultures, as well as the lives of other immigrants working with Mina at places like local supermarkets and swap meets. The author was born and raised in LA herself, and her familiarity with the culture and people shine through in the novel. “The Last Story of Mina Lee” doesn’t shy away from difficult themes, addressing head-on the feelings of loneliness and trauma that come from losing loved ones and residing in a place that doesn’t quite feel like home.
The novel also offers beautiful descriptions of Korean dishes and Mina’s church, both serving as outlets to bind her community together and as ways to make Mina feel at home in a place that otherwise feels foreign to her. The author combines narrative storytelling with poignant descriptions about family and culture in a way that feels genuine and meaningful.
If anything, the novel only struggles from being too detailed. Several scenes feel repetitive and the story gets bogged down by moments of long descriptions and conversations that feel drawn out and aren’t completely necessary to move the plot forward. The mystery element in the story is also compelling, but feels a bit unrealistic and overly coincidental by the end. Overlooking these factors, however, the author creates an engaging yet realistic view of Mina’s life and Margot’s longing to fully understand her mother.
“The Last Story of Mina Lee” was chosen as the September pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club, as well as one of five monthly picks for Book of the Month, a popular book subscription service. As a debut novel, the author succeeds in creating a narrative that combines a mystery-driven plot with moments of quiet reflection and eloquent depiction.