The first sentence in Please Look after Mom is “It’s been one week since Mom went missing.” The husband marched along the subway platform and onto a car in Seoul on their way to visit their son, never looking back to see if his wife was following. After all, she had followed behind him for years because he wouldn’t slow down for her. When he realizes she isn’t on the train with him, he makes his way back to Seoul Station, but she is nowhere to be seen. For months, the family searches, posts flyers, and hopes that someone will have seen her and taken care of this woman, Mom, whom they now realize was a major factor in their lives. Mom is one of the most intriguing characters I’ve read about recently and may remind readers of one of their grandmothers or great-grandmothers: that last generation of American women who had little schooling, but enormous amounts of practical knowledge. The Mom of this book personifies this type of person and is the very one you’d want to be with if all the techno gadgets of this world suddenly became inoperable. With Mom, you’d still eat and have a roof over your head because she not only plants and harvests and preserves food, but raises animals, butchers and cooks them, and seemingly makes something from nothing to feed and clothe her children, even as they grow up and all leave home. These characteristics are slowly revealed through four sections, each telling a story of Mom– in relation to a daughter, to the oldest favored son, to her once-philandering and frequently missing husband, and to herself as she wanders Seoul, lost and alone with her disconnected memories.
This Mom has done so much for them all, yet it takes the incident of losing her for each of them to realize what she has meant to them, what she sacrificed for them, and how little they really knew her or each other. What may seem an recognizable, albeit extraordinary, contemporary tale to South Koreans, is an emotionally gripping and historical trip for Americans through the daily lives of Koreans over the past sixty years. Mom’s hard lot will touch your heart and make you want to spend time getting to know your own elders while you can or contemplate who they really were. This novel is not for the cynical and hard-hearted!
New York Times review of Please Look After Mom.