Zauner’s memoir chronicles her relationship with her mother, Chongmi, and her decline following a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Zauner grew up Korean-American in a small town in Oregon, with very little diversity, where she longed to be American enough. As a teenager, she grew unwieldy and angsty. Her mother’s constantly reprimands led Zauner to resentment and rebellion- resulting in a fractured relationship between the two women.
When Zauner is 25 and with enough time and space between the women things look hopeful for them until her mother’s diagnosis of stage four cancer- snatching away any hope to mend their bond. As the two women come to terms with the reversal in roles and Michelle desperately seeks to make up for the pain she caused her mother as a teenager. As she grapples with the loss of her mother, she struggles to get a grip of her father and her Korean heritage. And as she navigates her grief Zauner finds solace in writing music and Korean cuisine- which is sumptuously described in this memoir.
The narrative is poignant, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching. Her writing is solid (for a first-time author). It made me emotional and laugh-out-loud, and I enjoyed reading it very much. Zauner is vulnerable in sharing a close look at her personal trauma, grief, and shame.
It’s a reflection on motherhood, daughterhood, and complexity that embodies any mother-daughter relationship. It is easy to relate to Michelle’s story. As I read the book I reflected on my own relationship with my mom and dad- and how wildly different they are. How the relationship with my mother evolved over the years. How my mother’s love for food and cooking is a part of me.
Michelle writes about Korean cuisine so vividly you could almost taste it, see it, and hear it. I found myself reaching for the kimchi more than usual this week. Just like Michelle turns to cooking and walking down aisles in HMart to remember her mother, I too attempted my mother’s recipes and walked the aisles at the Indian store to feel connected to my home and my mother.
Overall, I’d recommend this heartfelt book because there’s something here for everyone.
Sidenote: In 2016 I became enamored by Korean Dramas. I devoured the classics and the rite-of-passage KDramas. In fact my obsession was at its highest in 2017- when my parents observed a significant change in my speech. My subconscious had imbued the tone, rhythm, cadence characteristic of KDramas. When I spoke regular English it was an ultra-polite, sing-songy manner. The distinctive staccato sound (with each sound or note sharply detached or separated from the others) like plucking the strings of a violin had metamorphosized my articulation. In 2020 during the pandemic, I began experimenting with simple Korean dishes. All this is to say that, I’m no stranger to the Korean culture- and the book has deepened my understanding and appreciation for it.
🕵 How I Discovered It
Came across it on Goodreads.
✍️ My Favorite Quotes
“There was no one in the world that was ever as critical or could make me feel as hideous as my mother, but there was no one, not even Peter, who ever made me feel as beautiful.”
“Food was how my mother expressed her love. No matter how critical or cruel she could seem—constantly pushing me to meet her intractable expectations—I could always feel her affection radiating from the lunches she packed and the meals she prepared for me just the way I liked them.”
“To be a loving mother was to be known for a service, but to be a lovely mother was to possess a charm all your own.”
“She was her own spectacular individual. Perhaps I was still sanctimoniously belittling the two roles she was ultimately most proud of, unable to accept that the same degree of fulfillment may await those who wish to nurture and love as those to seek to earn and create. Her art was the love that beat on in her loved ones, a contribution to the world that could be just as monumental as a song or a book.”