THE LUCKY GOURD SHOP By Joanna Catherine Scott MacMurray & Beck 290 pp., $25
Perhaps you are the sort of person who likes to use the summer months to catch up on Proust or tackle the latest tome on Western civilization, but for me, there are really only two types of books suited to summertime. On the one hand, plot-driven novels - mysteries, say - that are fun, easy to read, and can be devoured in a day. The other, however, are those rare, exquisitely written novels that offer a glimpse into a completely different world, without asking the reader to do anything but marvel - the simpler, and shorter, the better. Joanna C. Scott's "The Lucky Gourd Shop" falls perfectly into the latter category.
The book begins with a chapter that seems semi-autobiographical: An American mother sits at the kitchen table with her three adopted children from South Korea, who are searching for information about their familial history (Scott dedicates the book to her own children and "their birth mother"). An eagerly awaited letter tells them nothing, and in place of a complete family tree they have only the oldest boy's "twigs and sticks of memory," which the mother, a writer, jots down. The story that follows this introductory chapter is their lost history - or the mother's re-creation of it, an elaborate myth woven in tribute to her children.
What is in many ways a brutal tale of poverty and despair becomes beautiful and moving through Scott's poetic language and eye for detail. The heroine is Mi Sook, the children's mother. Uneducated and nave, an orphan herself, she works in a coffee shop in Seoul, suffering through one unhappy marriage and several unrequited loves before eventually losing her children. Her repeated efforts to assert her independence are thwarted by the culture's repressive attitudes toward women as well as by the limitations of poverty. Her husband, Kun Soo, wants only sons, and Mi Sook speculates that she herself was abandoned for the same reason.
This sense of larger forces conspiring against Mi Sook evokes other tragic literary women like Anna Karenina or Sister Carrie (Mi Sook's nickname is in fact "little sister"). Like them, Mi Sook falls into seemingly inescapable patterns throughout the novel: Her children wind up orphaned like herself; she scorns her mother-in-law for spending hours making ornamental gourds yet later ends up doing the same thing to support herself. Yet the story doesn't have the grand scope of Dreiser or Tolstoy, and is so simply told that it never seems to reach the level of high tragedy.
Instead, the novel's perspective is more one of childlike acceptance, taking events at face value and without necessarily placing them in a wider context. "But then the very bad thing happened," Scott writes at one crucial point, a typical understatement.
Spare and elegant, the deceptively simple style allows Scott to touch on larger themes without ever sounding overwrought or heavy. There are references to the war with the North - Kun Soo's mother lost her two older sons to fighting - and to the country's uneasy relationship with America, but these are mostly in passing. A plot twist involving an American GI who falls in love with Mi Sook is handled deftly, conveying a sense of irony without making too obvious a connection between him and her children's fate.
The novel also draws from the school of magic realism, reflecting the superstitions of the culture it describes. Kun Soo's first wife lies down and dies when he tells her he wants a divorce, and their idiot son disappears the same night, later coming back to haunt his father. Ancestral ghosts hang about the characters; Kun Soo visits a fortune teller and a shaman. Scott's language reflects this fantastic quality as well: An early reference to the children's eventual Americanization, for example, states, "the boy's head grew a baseball cap."
Yet the novel also undercuts these superstitions, showing them to be merely additional conventions that hold the characters back. In the end, while Mi Sook hopes her lucky gourds will be her ticket to a better life, we are left with a sense of how fragile those hopes really are.
*Liz Marlantes is on the Monitor staff.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society