I wish I liked this book more than I did.
I liked it. But I wish I liked it more.
One thing about memoirs is that they have to a reason why you should read them. Some are so well written that they deserve to be read just for that reason, but most need to bring something more to the table. This could be a point of view readers are unfamiliar with. Growing up ____, for example. If the author can fill in the blank with something readers are not familiar with, then the memoir has that to offer.
They can also bring any number of experiences to the reader that make them worthwhile.
Crying in H Mart is Michelle Zauner’s memoir of her mother, in particular the time they spent together while her mother was dealing with the cancer that killed her. The focus of Crying in H Mart, the particular experience that this memoir brings to the table, is Korean Food and how cooking and eating became a way to bridge the gap between a Korean mother and her American daughter.
It’s interesting; at times compelling. Ms. Zauner’s mother and her experience of immigrating to America after marrying an American man make for a good story. She is not an easy character to love, but I came to appreciate her by the book’s end. I feel the same way about Ms. Zauner. She’s kind of frustrating as narrator’s go, but by I also came to appreciate her, for the most part.
At first, I loved the parts about food, too. There are plenty of them. I immediately thought of M.F.K Fisher’s Gastronomical Me which remains the best memoir about food ever written in my opinion. Both books write about food for food’s sake, but both use it as a means to connect with people as well.
At first Crying in H Mart read like a story of people and food; the descriptions of what was being cooked and eaten were “delicious” reading and felt seamlessly connected. But as the book went on, the food became intrusive, reduced to lists of what was being served at a particular meal without any description at least without enough to make me hungry. It seemed like the food was gratuitous. I wondered if an editor had noticed it’s absence in an early draft and given the author a note to include more cooking and eating.
It’s been nearly twenty years since I read M.F.K. Fisher, but I can still remember the disastrous Christmas dinner at the girl’s boarding school where she had her very first oyster. This was early in the 20th century when no one in Southern California had ever seen an oyster let alone eaten one. M.F.K. Fisher describes sitting in the kitchen hallway, after the dinner was over, eating all the oysters the other girls refused to touch and listening to the headmistress bawl out the cook for wasting so much money. And the afternoon Ms. Fisher spent with her mother and father stuck with a flat tire on the road between San Diego and Los Angelos, a full day’s drive in those days before freeways when her they finally gave in to hunger and just ate the fruit pies that were meant for the family dinner they were going to. Nothing I have ever read made me want to go out and buy a pie as much as that scene.
I wanted there to be something like that in Crying in H Mart. Once, several years ago, I got to go to a full-scale Korean feast at an upscale Korean restaurant in San Jose, California’s Korean section. It remains one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I’ve never seen so many different dishes of food at one table before or since. All of them wonderful. But nothing in Crying in H Mart really made we want to go out for dinner. What I’ll take away from this book is the struggle the narrator and her mother went through to finally reconcile and reconnect at the end of the mother’s life. There is some powerful reading there, but as for the food parts, I ended up skimming quite a few.