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Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

picture of book cover

There’s something for both mothers and children in Please Look After Mom : mothers will feel grateful they don’t have selfish children and children will be glad to not have a martyr for a mother.

While I have mixed feelings about Please Look After Mom , it's a book that’s good for readers like me, who are voracious but fairly Euro/American-centric in their choices. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a book that takes place in South Korea, but Kyung-Sook Shin’s story shows how that anyone can appreciate the universal themes of filial duty, motherhood and, a personal favorite, unrecognized medical problems.

It begins with Mom, also known as Park So-nyo, who does not get on a train with her husband in Seoul, and is missing through the course of the story. The book gives the perspective of her daughter, son, husband, and finally Mom herself. The daughter, an acclaimed author, and son, a successful businessman, come off as self-involved, upwardly mobile people with little appreciation for their mother until it’s too late. The sister, Chi-hon, sees her mother pass out from headaches and grow more confused, yet blames Hyong-chol, her brother, for not doing more to help her. When a doctor tells Chi-hon her mother had a previous stroke, which is causing her dementia and neurological pain, Chi-hon says it never happened.

The doctor said Mom was in constant pain. That Mom’s body was in constant pain. “What do you mean, in constant pain? Mom has always been pretty healthy.”

“Well, I don’t think that’ s true,” the doctor said.

The father is a pathetic, almost tragic figure, who lets his wife manage the house and raise the children while he drinks and philanders. Yet once his wife has gone, he realizes his life is essentially over. He thinks,

The moment when you had to confirm that you’d left your wife in Seoul Station, that you’ve boarded the train and traveled one stop away, the moment that you turned around, accidentally hitting the shoulder of the person next to you, you realized that your life had been irreparably damaged. It didn’t take even a minute to realize that your life had veered off track because of your speedy gait, because of your habit of always walking in front of your wife during all those years of marriage, first when you were young, then old, for fifty years.

There are additional beautiful scenes and segments like that, such as Mom giving up one of her beloved dogs so her daughter can have a book. Ironically, it’s the chapter with Mom herself narrating where the book starts to feel like too much, partially because of the use of “you” has grown tiresome, and partially because part of the point is that Mom’s identity was her family. There are secrets, and hopes, of hers that are hidden throughout the story (she was volunteering at an orphanage in her spare time) but ultimately the tragedy of Park So-nyo’s life is not that she goes missing, but that all of her hard work and sacrifice ultimately results in children who don’t call home on Parents’ Day. An epilogue, while written with skill, also feels like it was tacked on to make the reader less depressed.

Please Look After Mom is not a hard read, although it can be tough to keep the minor characters straight, and gives the reader a lot to mull on. It would be great fodder for a book club, especially one with mothers.