Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is a novel told in four voices about a mother’s disappearance and how this affects the different people in the family. The reviews I’ve read talk a great deal about the guilt of the family, the selfishness of the individuals and how her being accidentally left at a train station reveals to them all just how loving and wonderful she was and also just how selfish and unappreciative they were.
I think I missed something because if that is what this novel is solely about then I doubt I would love it so much that I wish I could buy copies of it for everyone I love and am eagerly recommending it to everyone. This is a lovely book about regret, about how we take one another for granted, and ultimately about how we never really know what may happen next.
The novel begins with the mother already missing and her family hoping to find her, creating a flyer and debating what it should say and what photograph they should use. The eldest daughter is the first to express her reaction to her mother’s disappearance with a conflicted range of emotions from anger to shame, from hope to despair. Her complicated relationship with her mother is revealed both through her relationship with her siblings and her memories of discovering some things about her mother that nobody else seemed to know.
The book is sprinkled with flashbacks that are perfectly woven within the narrative that one never feels a jarring leap in and out of time. Rather, each moment leads to the next and even the feelings that are so often in opposition to one another seem to flow from and towards each to each in a natural fluidity.
The eldest son, husband, and mother herself are all given time to share their own feelings not only about the immediate moment of the mother’s disappearance but the little habits and circumstances that built up with a near inevitability to her being one moment there and the next gone. Where the novel loses some of its integrity is in the final section where the older daughter once again takes over the story and things frankly turn melodramatic.
I can see why so many reviewers are focusing on the “mother guilt” aspect but the fact is that I saw the mother’s character as flawed, the way we all are, and the choices she made were no more nor less what many mothers make from one day to the next. She favors one child over another, indulges the youngest much in the way youngest children are often spoiled if only because there is more to give the younger child after the older ones have gone. The mother is proud and sympathetic but I never felt that her children were overly narcissistic although I did feel the husband was negligent and, of them all, the least appreciative of how fortunate he was. The complexity of the marriage is too easily dismissed if only the husband’s perspective were given but when the mother herself is finally allowed to share her own story this seemingly long-suffering wife shows a strength of character that is formidable. If her husband did not love her well, neither did she love him as much as she perhaps could have.
To suggest this novel is about how selfish children and spouses don’t appreciate how loving and self-sacrificing their mothers/wives are is to over-simplify it because she does not accuse anyone of the things for which they are beating themselves up; instead, she takes responsibility for her life, her choices, and, in chorus with the others, admits she could have done better.
That is the story I read—one in which we are all guilty, perhaps, of taking for granted what is here and not appreciating those whom we hold most dear. Instead of a book that made me feel ashamed of myself as a daughter, it made me feel honored to have been a mother and grateful to my own mother for sharing this lovely book with me and so very many more things that I know I’ll never have time enough in this lifetime to tell her how much I really do appreciate and love her.
Maybe the book I read is flawed and the reviewers are right but if they are then I’m glad to be wrong.