Synopses & Reviews
Gretchen Lin, adrift at the age of thirty, leaves her floundering marriage in San Francisco to move back to her childhood home in Singapore and immediately finds herself face-to-face with the twin headaches shes avoided her entire adult life: her mothers drinking problem and the machinations of her fathers artisanal soy sauce business.
Surrounded by family, Gretchen struggles with the tension between personal ambition and filial duty, but still finds time to explore a new romance with the son of a client, an attractive man of few words. When an old American friend comes to town, the two of them are pulled into the controversy surrounding Gretchens cousin, the only male grandchild and the heir apparent to Lins Soy Sauce. In the midst of increasing pressure from her father to remain permanently in Singapore—and pressure from her mother to do just the opposite—Gretchen must decide whether she will return to her marriage and her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, or sacrifice everything and join her familys crusade to spread artisanal soy sauce to the world.
Soy Sauce for Beginners reveals the triumphs and sacrifices that shape one womans search for a place to call home, and the unexpected art and tradition behind the brewing of a much-used but unsung condiment. The result is a foodie love story that will give readers a hearty appreciation for family loyalty and fresh starts.
"Shin's affecting English-language debut centers on the life of a hardworking, uncomplaining woman who goes missing in a bustling Seoul subway station. After Park So-nyo's disappearance, her grown children and her husband are filled with guilt and remorse at having taken So-nyo for granted and reflect, in a round-robin of narration, on her life and role in their lives. Having, through Mom's unstinting dedication, achieved professional success, her children understand for the first time the hardships she endured. Her irresponsible and harshly critical husband, meanwhile, finally acknowledges the depth of his love and the seriousness of her sacrifices for him. Narrating in her own voice late in the book, the spirit of Mom watches her family and finally voices her lifelong loneliness and depression and recalls the one secret in her life. As memories accrue, the narrative becomes increasingly poignant and psychologically revealing of all the characters, and though it does sometimes go soggy with pathos, most readers should find resonance in this family story, a runaway bestseller in Korea poised for a similar run here. (Apr.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"Please Look After Mom is an authentic, moving story that brings to vivid life the deep family connections that lie at the core of Korean culture. But it also speaks beautifully to an urgent issue of our time: migration, and how the movement of people from small towns and villages to big cities can cause heartbreak and even tragedy. This is a tapestry of family life that will be read all over the world. I loved this book." Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
"Kyung-sook Shin has managed some kind of alchemy in this novel. Weaving together four vivid voices
"A suspenseful and moving book. We join this family as soon as we open these pages and we never quite leave it. Or it never leaves us. Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations, Please Look After Mom is a powerful and memorable read." Edwidge Danticat, author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and Brother, I'm Dying
A million-plus-copy best seller in South Korea and poised to become an international sensation—Please Look After Mom
is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, and of the desires, heartaches, and secrets they discover she harbored within.
On a family visit to the city, Mom is right behind her husband when the train pulls out of Seoul Station without her, and she is lost, possibly forever. As her children argue over how to find her and her husband returns to their countryside home to wait for her, they each recall their lives with her, their memories often more surprising than comforting. Have they lived up to her expectations? Was she happy? Through the piercing voices of daughter, son, and husband, and through Mom’s own words in the novel’s shattering conclusion, we learn what happened that day, and explore an even deeper mystery—of motherhood itself.
At once steeped in the beauty and complexities of the East and rich with a universal tenderness, Please Look After Mom has a revelatory emotional power. You will never think of your mother the same way again after you’ve read this book.
A million-plus-copy best seller in Korea—a magnificent English-language debut poised to become an international sensation—this is the stunning, deeply moving story of a familys search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.
You will never think of your mother the same way again after you read this book.
For fans of Kyung-Sook Shin and Anna Quindlen, a story of family, loyalty and fresh starts in the heart of Singapore.
About the Author
Kyung-sook Shin is the author of numerous works of fiction and is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists. She has been honored with the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu. Please Look After Mom is her first book to appear in English and will be published in nineteen countries. Currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City, she lives in Seoul.
Reading Group Guide
1. While second-person (“you”) narration is an uncommon mode, it is used throughout the novel’s first section (the tale of the daughter, Chi-hon) and third section (the tale of the husband). What is the effect of this choice? How does it reflect these characters’ feelings about Mom? Why do you think Mom is the only character who tells her story in the first person?
2. What do we learn about the relationship between Chi-hon and her mother? What are the particular sources of tension or resentment between them? Why does Chi-hon say to her brother, “Maybe I’m being punished . . .” (p. 68)?
3. Why is it significant that Chi-hon is a successful writer, and how does her career affect her position in the family? What does this mean for her relationship to her mother, who is illiterate? How does it happen that her mother begins to treat Chi-hon like “a guest” when she visits home (p. 17)?
4. Mom’s life has been defined by her relationships to others and the needs of her family. When her daughter asks her, “Did you like to cook?” how does Mom’s reply summarize the divide between her own and her daughter’s generations (p. 57)? How is the generational gap between you and your parents, and/or you and your children, at all similar to, or different from, this one?
5. What are some of the reasons for the special bond between the eldest son, Hyong-chol, and his mother?
6. Why does Hyong-chol feel that he has disappointed his mother? Why does she apologize to him when she brings Chi-hon to live with him (p. 89)? Why do you think he hasn’t achieved his goals (p. 112)?
7. Why is food such a powerful element in Hyong-chol’s memories of his mother?
8. How do you explain the fact that Mom has been seen by various people wearing blue plastic sandals, with her foot badly injured, although when she disappeared she was wearing low-heeled beige sandals (pp. 64, 72, 73, 90, 91)? What do you make of the pharmacist’s story of treating her wounded foot and calling the police (pp. 99–101)? Does Mom’s own narrative solve this mystery?
9. The Full Moon Harvest is a festival in which Koreans traditionally return to their family home to honor their ancestors. Hyong-chol reflects that people are now beginning to take holidays out of the country instead, saying, “Ancestors, I’ll be back” (p. 92). What feelings do memories of their mother’s preparations for the festival stir up in Chi-hon, Hyong-chol, and their father (pp. 92–98)?
10. Weeks after his wife disappears, her husband discovers that for ten years she has been giving a substantial amount of money—money their children send her each month—to an orphanage where she has taken on many responsibilities (pp. 116–21). How does the husband react to this and other surprising discoveries about her life?
11. After Mom has gone missing, her husband says to himself, “Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart” (p. 122). Discuss the pain and regret Mom’s family feels, including in the context of the book’s epigraph from Franz Liszt, “O love, as long as you can love.” Have they followed this edict successfully? Why do you think Kyung-sook Shin chose this quote to open her story?
12. Taking out the burial shrouds his wife had made for the two of them, her husband remembers her wish that he die first: “Since you’re three years older than me, you should leave three years earlier” (p. 135). What is the effect of the way this passage moves from poignancy to humor and back again? Similarly, how do grief and warmth, even happiness, intertwine as he recalls his wife’s generosity and her hands applying a warm towel to his arthritic knee (p. 140)?
13. Do you think Mom’s husband and children would have been able to help her if they had paid her and her illness more attention? Or, given her aversion to the hospital and the way she hid her sickness, was what happens to her inevitable?
14. Discuss the return of Mom as storyteller and narrator in the fourth section. What is inventive about this choice on the author’s part? What surprised you—and what remained a mystery?
15. How does Mom’s feeling for her younger daughter differ from her feeling for Chi-hon? Why was she able to be more attached to the younger daughter than the elder one (pp. 180-85)? How is the use of the second person here—Mom addressing her daughter as “you”—different from the use of second person in chapters 1 and 3?
16. What do her children and husband discover about Mom’s life only after she disappears? How do her actions express her generosity and benevolence? Do you see some of her activities as ways of seeking self-fulfillment? Was she, through giving to others, taking care of herself?
17. What are we to understand of the fact of Mom’s possibly being spotted, in chapter 2 (“I’m Sorry, Hyong-chol”), in the various neighborhoods where Hyong-chol has lived in Seoul? In Mom’s own narrative (chapter 4, “Another Woman”), what is the connection between herself and the bird her daughter sees “sitting on the quince tree” (p. 175; see also p. 170).
18. At the end of the father’s section, he says to his older daughter, “Please . . . please look after your mom” (p. 164). How does Chi-hon carry out this directive? How is it related to her feelings about the Pietà and her purchase of “rose rosary beads” at the Vatican (pp. 234–37)?
19. What are the details and cultural references that make this story particularly Korean? What elements make it universal?
The discussion questions and topics that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.