Mama Mia, who knew that Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt!
How else to explain why Please Look After Mom, a new novel by Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin, has already sold over one-million copies in her native South Korea? This literary phenom is scheduled to be published in 22 other countries and has just come out in the U.S. The back cover of the American edition, brought out by Knopf, is filled with blurbs by heavyweights like Gary Shteyngart and Edwidge Danticat. They, too, must share a weakness for melodramas about maternal self-sacrifice, although Please Look After Mom outsniffles even those immortal weepies of the western canon, Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce.
To give it its due, Shin's novel, which was translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim, is marked by a wistful tone and by some precisely-rendered scenes of emotional disconnect between a mother and the adult children who've grown apart from her. But the weird fascination of Please Look After Mom is its message — completely alien to our own therapeutic culture — that if one's mother is miserable, it is indeed, the fault of her husband and her ungrateful children. As an American reader — indoctrinated in resolute messages about "boundaries" and "taking responsibility" — I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve for the breast-beating children. It wasn't until the end of the novel, when Shin rolled out the Mother of all maternal suffering images — Michaelangelo's Pieta — that I understood I was stranded in a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction
The pretext of Please Look After Mom is that an elderly, illiterate woman is separated from her distracted husband in the central train station in Seoul and goes missing. Her four adult children distribute fliers and roam the city searching for her, but are tormented by regret that none of them went to the train station in the first place to meet their country bumpkin parents. That goes double for the eldest son, a wealthy businessman who was indulging in a sauna during his parents' arrival time and, extra especially, for the eldest daughter, a successful novelist, who was off having her ego inflated at the Beijing Book Fair. Shin presents her reproachful tale through different narrative perspectives, the most labored of which is a God-like second-person voice. Here, that voice hectors the novelist daughter for her crimes of inattention:
"After you'd left home for the city, you'd always talked to [Mom] as if you were angry at her. You talked back to her saying, "What do you know, Mom?" . . . Even when you had to take a plane because your book was being published in another country, or you had to go abroad for a seminar, when she asked, "Why are you going there?" you stiffly replied, "Because I have business to take care of."
Did you catch the anti-city, anti-modernist, anti-feminist messages in that passage? The lost mother clearly stands for values that are fading from Korean culture as industrialization and urbanization triumph. Her life, which we glimpse in flashbacks, has been one long ordeal since her marriage at age 17, yet mom has retained her simple humanity. We readers know this because we're told that mom secretly donated money for years to an orphanage and only asked in return that a worker there read aloud to her the books written by her cold-hearted novelist daughter.
If there's a literary genre in Korean that translates into "manipulative sob sister melodrama," Please Look After Mom is surely its reigning queen. I'm mystified as to why this guilt-laden morality tale has become such a sensation in Korea and why a literary house like Knopf would embrace it. (Although, as women are the biggest audience for literary fiction, Please Look After Mom must be anticipated to be a book club hit in this country.) But, why wallow in cross-cultural self-pity, ladies?
Having just read Patti Smith's award-winning memoir, Just Kids, for the second time, I'd urge you to pick her empowering female adventure tale about getting lost in the city instead. Smith will get your book club on its feet and pumping its collective fists in the air, rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction.