After its release over a decade ago in South Korea, the immediate success of Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom sets high expectations for contemporary readers. The novel precedes its reputation as it evokes universal feelings of nostalgia and guilt through its relatable premise: dealing with the grief of the love you never get to share. Please Look After Mom sold over a million copies within 10 months of its release in South Korea, and continued to achieve critical success after its translation to English in 2011.
The novel’s unique storytelling technique can be attributed to its four chapters, each of which is narrated by a different member of the Park family. The first chapter is narrated by Chi-hon, the eldest daughter of the mother, So-nyo. The next two chapters are narrated by Hyong-chol, the eldest son, and So-nyo’s husband respectively, and the last chapter follows So-nyo herself, as she reminisces about her life from childhood till she gets lost at the subway station.
Please Look After Mom starts with the family at Hyong-chol’s house after discovering that their mother has gotten lost at a Seoul subway station when traveling with her husband. The novel’s first heart wrenching moment occurs here, and sets up the bitter sweet nature of the rest of the story; when the family plans to print out missing person posters, they realize that none of them have a recent photograph of their mother. Chi-hon remembers that “at some point Mom started to hate getting her picture taken,” and her younger brother laments that their mother “looks so different in [the picture they find of her] from the way she did right before she went missing. He doesn’t think people would identify her as the same person.” It is in this moment that the siblings begin to face the reality that they have not returned the same love and reliability that their mother showered them with, for some time now.
This tragic realization is further explored as Chi-hon notes that “she [didn’t] understand why it took [her] so long to realize something so obvious. To [her], Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to [her] that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old”. The unnamed father echoes Chi-hon’s regrets as he mourns the consistency that his wife provided. He realizes that his wife, “whom [he’d] forgotten about for fifty years, was present in [his] heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to [him] tangibly.” The memories that ambush the family serve as a wake-up call for each of them, as they begin to admit that they did not replicate the unconditional love that So-nyo provided them with. Instead, they treated her support as a predictable and ever-present reality. So, So-nyo’s disappearance complicates her family’s reality by forcing them to question, did they really know So-nyo as anything more than a mother and a wife?
This question forces them to examine their mother’s daily life for the first time. Chi-hon wonders how she had always accepted her mother’s role in the kitchen and as a housewife without ever questioning, “did Mother like being in the kitchen?” By recalling their taken-for-granted interactions with their mother, the family rethinks their image of their mother as they question the patriarchal expectations which made them value her motherhood more than her personhood.
Shin’s Please Look After Mom takes the dependable figure of the mother and uses her disappearance to highlight how mothers require care, too. By looking back at memories of So-nyo, the father and Chi-hon notice the many physical and emotional vulnerabilities that So-nyo faced that they never acknowledged or helped her tackle, such as her frequent headaches, which often resulted in her fainting. So-nyo’s life as being more than just a mother and wife is depicted through her donations to the orphanage.
Shin’s short yet heartbreaking novel becomes a must read for contemporary audiences as she is able to move her readers, as they can relate to the feeling of realizing that they will never be able to appreciate their mother for everything she does for them. Therefore, Please Look After Mom proves a timeless story that serves as a cautionary tale about how we unintentionally hurt our mothers, because of the sexist behaviors we unconsciously internalize.
The memories that ambush the family serve as a wake-up call for each of them, as they begin to admit that they did not replicate the unconditional love that So-nyo provided them with.