Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



In association with Amazon.it - Italia

the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Private Lives of Plants

Lee Seung-U

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Private Lives of Plants

Title: The Private Lives of Plants
Author: Lee Seung-U
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 175 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: The Private Lives of Plants - US
The Private Lives of Plants - UK
The Private Lives of Plants - Canada
La vie rêvée des plantes - France
Das verborgene Leben der Pflanzen - Deutschland
La vida secreta de las plantas - España (Kindle)
  • Korean title: 식물들의 사생활
  • Translated by Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : well-drawn family novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 5/12/2015 Eileen Battersby
NZZ . 11/7/2014 Rudolf Bussmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is the narrator’s journey towards emotional intelligence that gives this quiet, redemptive novel an unexpected power. Dysfunctional families have become stock source material for fiction. This novel possesses a rare edge; it may not be funny, but it certainly feels real." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Das Buch erschöpft sich indes nicht in einer Enthüllungsgeschichte, sondern dringt in tiefere Dimensionen vor. (...) Die Einbindung östlicher Spiritualität und christlicher Ethik in den koreanischen Alltag und in die koreanische Geschichte (die Handlung spielt während der Militärdiktatur) mag ein Grund dazu sein, dass der Roman im Westen ein ähnlich grosses Echo auslöste wie in Südkorea." - Rudolf Bussmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       There is, admittedly, no shortage of plant-symbolism in The Private Lives of Plants, from the out-of-place (yet thriving) palm tree that is a central image and point to the garden in which the family father putters around. Plants have emotions and can read mind's the narrator's father insists; a man about whom his son Ki-hyeon wonders: "Had he ever been happy ?" seems to find companionship and fulfilment only in the company of plants, and in a rare moment when he opens up explains:

Yes, plants are alive with emotions. They feel pain, sadness and happiness. And they know by instict whether a person lies or speaks the truth. A feigned love doesn't provoke a reaction from them. As with people, you should be truthful when communicating with plants.
       The family household is described as cold and alienating, each of the four family members living practically as an island. Woo-hyeon was the son with the promising future but, as Ki-hyeon only relatively recently learned, his brother returned home a broken man -- literally half the man he used to be. The mother is successful running a restaurant, but the parent's marriage seems largely loveless, the father an almost peripheral figure who prefers tending to his plants to interacting with his family. Ki-hyeon has only relatively recently returned to the fold as well, and is still trying to adjust to his brother's changed situation as well as trying to find his own place, at home and in the world.
       As a student, Woo-hyeon was an avid photographer. Even these many years later Ki-hyeon enthusiastically recalls his brother's passion:
Excitedly, you would point out the truth in the photos. 'This is truth,' you would say. And when you said, 'I take photos to capture truth, to communicate the truth, and to prove the truth,' you looked powerful and dignified.
       It was not a time for truths, however, and, unknown to Ki-hyeon until recently, Woo-hyeon's truth-seeking -- and then his very essence -- was dashed by the authorities (in tumultuous mid-1980s South Korea).
       When they were younger, Ki-hyeon also fell in love with Woo-hyeon's girlfriend, Soon-mee, and his final petty act involved taking his older brother's prized camera -- coincidentally just before the authorities cracked down and more forcefully silenced Woo-hyeon. Though Ki-hyeon is not responsible for what happened to Woo-hyeon, he remains racked with guilt:
     I am a debtor. My debt is huge and heavy. I sometimes feel that the rest of ny ife will be lived only in order to pay down what I owe my brother.
       Ki-hyeon tries to set up a business at home, running errands for people -- work he used to do for a larger agency -- and a rare well-paying assignment he gets is, mysteriously, to follow his mother. Meanwhile, he decides also to seek out Soon-mee. In both roles he continues much along the same lines as he had in his youth: he is a voyeur, stealthily following and watching, and often lying. Truth will out, however, and the novel is about a family truth, a necessary resolution for the various family-members that finally clarifies the nature of some of the relationships to all of them.
       Lee effectively moves his story from its shocking beginnings -- of raw sexuality and Woo-hyeon's horrific fits, where he can not be helped -- to the far calmer and more tender. In different ways, the family members are drawn to plants -- the father most generally, the mother to the palm tree, even Woo-hyeon -- even as they fail in their human connections. Yet ultimately the plants also allow them to bridge the gaps that have grown so wide between them. "All trees are the incarnations of frustrated love", Ki-hyeon recalls his brother once writing, and by the end the incarnations have been recognized as such, allowing the characters to possibly move on.
       Lee unfolds the story quite well, right down to the perfect not-quite-complete resolution of its ending. The shift from the darkness and bitterness of unrequited and unfulfilled loves to a more complete (and accepting) understanding is impressively done, and though there's considerable ugliness to many of the scenes and actions, this serves the novel and its resolution well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 September 2015

- Return to top of the page -


The Private Lives of Plants: Reviews: Other books by Lee Seung-U under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       Korean author Lee Seung-U (이승우) was born in 1959.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2015 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links