ARC Review – The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim + Blog Tour!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a blog tour, but this is a book I wanted to promote! Thank you to the publisher for reaching out to me and thank you for including me in the blog tour! I’m seriously so excited.

In The Last Story of Mina Lee, we get two stories – Mina Lee’s story from the late 1980s as a new, non-English-speaking resident of Los Angeles from South Korea; and Margot Lee’s story from 2014 where she discovers her mother’s dead body after Mina hadn’t been returning her calls for a few days.

Mina Lee left South Korea after a life full of loss. During the war, she and her parents left the north, but she got separated from them in the chaos and grew up in an orphanage. She had a nice job as a clothing designer, along with a husband and daughter in South Korea, but then her whole family died, and she couldn’t bear to stay in the country that had only handed her sadness and trauma. So she emigrated to America, settling in Koreatown in Los Angeles, and started over, taking a job at a Korean grocery store and renting a room in a house just for herself. It’s lonely, and sad, but this life is hers, and she can finally start over.

Margot Lee only has resentment toward her mother, resentment that her mother never learned English, resentment that she never changed, never left the tiny apartment they’d always lived in, never did anything fun. So when she discovers that her mother died alone, she has so much guilt. And she can’t help but feel that the death was suspicious. Her mother wasn’t elderly – she was still working. She shouldn’t have just died without any explanation, and the coroner’s ruling of “accidental” doesn’t sit right with Margot. As she starts to dive into the life of Mina Lee, Margot realizes she didn’t really know her mother at all.

3 Things I Loved

  1. The writing. I’ve read so many books that I sometimes have trouble at beginnings, if the writing isn’t extraordinary. But I was IN this story from the very first page, engrossed in Margot’s rainy drive from Seattle with her friend. I never wanted to put this book down!
  2. Mina. I connected with Mina really early on in the book, her sadness palpable in the words on the page. She was trying to start over in a new country full of customs she didn’t understand, and it was so easy to feel for her. But because of what I knew from Margot’s POV, there was also a shroud of mystery that made me want to read forever and ever.
  3. Margot. It took me a little longer to like Margot, because she seemed so whiny and hateful at the beginning of the book. But that wasn’t it at all – Margot was complicated, and she had a complex relationship with her mother that unraveled and revealed itself as the story went on. She was really relatable, and her need to find the truth about what happened to her mother was something I felt deep in my bones.

Dislikes/Problematic Content

First, some content warnings. Discussions of death and finding the dead body of a loved one, very early in the book and throughout. Some talk of war, some talk of utter and complete loss that could be triggering. And there are some mentions of suicidal thoughts.

So. There were two things I didn’t like about the book; one is very true to life and the other is book specific.

So first, the book specific critique – Margot’s timeline/story was very… passive. I liked it, and I related to her, but she didn’t DO very much, and there wasn’t a lot of character development. It was disappointing, because I really liked the book as a whole, but Margot just needed a big kick in the ass to do something and develop a little more on the page. Looking at Goodreads, this seems to be a common comment about the book.

And second, I hated some of the ways that Americans in LA treated Mina when she arrived. They were predatory, and nosy, and HORRIBLE in a lot of ways. And that’s very much the immigrant experience in this country, from what I’ve heard and the little I’ve witnessed myself. I can’t relate, but I empathize, and I hated reading it even though I knew it was incredibly true to life.


A reminder of the rating scale:

  • Red = DNF, I hated everything
  • Orange = Ugh, no thank you
  • Yellow = I mean, I’ve read worse, but there were problems
  • Green = This was good! 
  • Blue = Oh my gosh, I loved this book!
  • Purple = This is the unicorn of books and I will be rereading it until the binding falls apart and EVERYONE should be reading it!

This was a tough one for me, because there were so many things I loved about the book, even with the slower plot on Margot’s end. So! I’m going to give The Last Story of Mina Lee a GREEN rating! I still recommend it, and I am so thankful to have been able to read it early!

Thank you (again) to the publisher and to NetGalley for the advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my views of the book in any way.

The Last Story of Mina Lee releases on September 1, 2020! Happy reading!

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