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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Please Look After Mom

Shin Kyung-sook

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To purchase Please Look After Mom

Title: Please Look After Mom
Author: Shin Kyung-sook
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Please Look After Mom - US
Please Look After Mother - UK
Please Look After Mom - Canada
Please Look After Mother - India
Prends soin de maman - France
Als Mutter verschwand - Deutschland
Prenditi cura di lei - Italia
Por favor, cuida de mamá - España
  • Korean title: 엄마를 부탁해
  • US title: Please Look After Mom
  • UK title: Please Look After Mother
  • Translated by Kim Chi-Young
  • Awarded Man Asian Literary Prize, 2012

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Our Assessment:

B : crushingly sentimental, but some interesting contrasts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B 30/3/2011 Tina Jordan
The NY Times . 31/3/2011 Janet Maslin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/4/2011 Mythili G. Rao
L'Osservatore Romano . 28/7/2011 Giulia Galeotti
Publishers Weekly . 6/12/2010 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 8/5/2011 Vanessa Hua
Wall St. Journal A+ 28/5/2011 Pico Iyer
The Washington Post . 20/5/2011 Art Taylor

  Review Consensus:

  Effective tear-jerker/guilt-trip

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)espite the stock characters -- and Shin's regrettable forays into pathos -- the story somehow works, redeemed by the resolute So-nyo of the last chapters, a woman her husband and children never knew." - Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly

  • "But we need to learn about her saintliness in stages. So the book is divided into sections, each devoted to the browbeating of a particular character. Momís high-strung careerist daughter and Momís faithless husband are both addressed by the author as "you," as if Ms. Shin means to give each a highly personalized scolding. (...) Penitence is, after all, this bookís whole point. Charactersí eyes begin watering, pooling with tears, brimming over, etc., as each one has the chance to realize that Mom was a treasure. (Bonus sobbing cue: Nobody knew that Mom was secretly working at an orphanage in her spare time.) (...) But how well will it work elsewhere? Ms. Shin has anticipated that problem by ending the book with a not-to-be-believed scene set in Rome, where Mom is compared to the most sacred of maternal figures." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times

  • "Shinís prose, intimate and hauntingly spare in this translation by Chi-Young Kim, moves from first to second and third person, and powerfully conveys griefís bewildering immediacy. (...) Passages of the novel may cause the grown children among Shinís readers to cringe. (...) And yet this book isnít as interested in emotional manipulation as it is in the invisible chasms that open up between people who know one another best." - Mythili G. Rao, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The narration happens on two levels which intersect continually, giving life to a rich, final tapestry. In the drama of the disappearance of the old woman, the family is destroyed by a sense of guilt. Guilt which goes back in time for not having understood her, known her, really loved her" - Giulia Galeotti, L'Osservatore Romano

  • "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." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The novel is the first of Shin's to be translated into English. The daughter of farmers and an acclaimed writer in South Korea, she writes vividly about the old customs and the way of life guided by ancestral rites and seasons. (...) Mom might be a bit too sainted; a few flaws could have enriched and rounded out her character." - Vanessa Hua, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Please Look After Mom is the most moving and accomplished, and often startling, novel in translation I've read in many seasons. (...) Every sentence is saturated in detail. (...) It would be easy to say that Ms. Shin has given us an unforgettable East Asian mother out of Amy Tan in a globalized world we recognize from Jhumpa Lahiri. But the author's first novel to appear in English does something more than that. It tells an almost unbearably affecting story of remorse and belated wisdom that reminds us how globalism -- at the human level -- can tear souls apart and leave them uncertain of where to turn." - Pico Iyer, Wall Street Journal

  • "Rather than a briskly moving investigation into a womanís disappearance, Please Look After Mom gazes moodily backward and inward. It offers reflective meditations on motherhood and a ruminative quest to confront mysteries more abstract than figuring out where Park So-nyo went. (...) The book strives to plumb some deep and essential truth about motherhood, but the realizations that shatter these charactersí apathy may strike readers as somewhat less profound." - Art Taylor, The Washington Post

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.

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The complete review's Review:

       Please Look After Mom has a simple, devastating premise: a family loses Mom (and wife) Park So-nyo. Not as in she passes away, but rather literally loses her. One moment she's on the crowded Seoul Station subway platform with her husband and then, when he's on the train, he suddenly notices she didn't manage to make it on. Add in the fact that he's carrying her bag -- and then, as we soon learn, that Mom is illiterate -- and she's not really equipped to be wandering about on her own. But when the family go look for her they can't find her; her fate and whereabouts are a mystery. It's like she vanished into thin air.
       While the story begins with the search for Mom (already going on for a week by that time), the novel is less a mystery about what happened than a chance for the different family members to reflect on what they suddenly find themselves missing. Divided into four parts (plus a short epilogue), Please Look After Mom presents the perspectives of different family members in turn -- daughter and writer Chi-hon, eldest son Hyong-chol, the husband, and then Mom. Several of these are written in the second person, amplifying the in-your-face-feel of the guilt-trip on offer, and trying to make the reader complicit in the characters' failures (apparently quite successfully, to judge from many of the reviews ...).
       Mom turns out to have been incredibly selfless -- in all senses of the word. The characters realize they don't really know her that well, and often didn't pay that much attention -- barely realizing she was illiterate for example, or not even knowing her precise age. But then Mom always put everyone else first -- eventually not even bothering to celebrate her own birthday, since it's so close to Dad's .....
       Mom was always busy, toiling in the fields and doing what she could to help her kids. Sure, she "bred silkworms and brewed malt and helped make tofu" -- but that's just the tip of the iceberg. And once the kids are out of the house she still keeps busy doing what she can (and often not telling anyone about it), like helping out at the local orphanage .....
       Her husband wasn't much of one, and for a while they were separated, as he hooked up with another woman, but they wound up together again -- and only when she's gone does the husband realize how much he misses her. Similarly, it only begins to dawn on the kids how selflessly Mom devoted herself to them -- so Hyong-chol:

When she was younger, Mom was a presence that got him to continue building his resolve as a man, as a human being.
       As to her own suffering -- those headaches ! those stomach pains ! -- well, no one pays them too much heed (and Mom of course never asks for help or attention).
       Treacly sentimental though Please Look After Mom is, it does at least offer rich local color, and an interesting contrast between the rural Korea the children were born into (the family lived in a countryside town) and urbanized modern South Korea -- centered around Seoul (and with Chi-hon, for example, frequently abroad -- a jet-setting novelist). Mom is all about traditions and an established (but increasingly obsolete) way of life; her illiteracy is only the most obvious marker of her remove from the fast-paced modern times her children are immersed in.
       The different perspectives and narratives make for some interesting variety -- though the second-person voices can be a bit much to take. Its many jumps between past and present (and the shifts in voice and perspective) also can make it somewhat difficult to follow parts of the family-story, or get a true sense of some of the characters. The book is also undermined by Mom's too-good-to-be-true selflessness -- there's nothing she won't do for her kids in her maternal overkill -- and Shin lays it on pretty thickly, right down to a Vatican (holy mother of god !) epilogue .....
       Please Look After Mom is an odd book -- quite accomplished, in many respects, but also far too reliant on cheap (or at least cheaply presented) sentimentality. Ultimately, it is simply too reverent.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 December 2011

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Please Look After Mom: Reviews: Shin Kyung-sook: Other books by Shin Kyung-sook under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Popular Korean author Shin Kyung-sook (신경숙) was born in 1963.

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© 2011-2014 the complete review

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