Recommended: for certain people
For folks who love food or have strong memory associations with it, for a heartwrenching amount of grief, for (seemingly, I guess who knows what she kept to herself) total honesty and dull blunt assessments of some of the most painful moments in her life, for little splashes of joy, for baffling contrasts of explosive anger and tender love
In this exquisite story of family, food, grief, and endurance, Michelle Zauner proves herself far more than a dazzling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. With humor and heart, she tells of growing up one of the few Asian American kids at her school in Eugene, Oregon; of struggling with her mother’s particular, high expectations of her; of a painful adolescence; of treasured months spent in her grandmother’s tiny apartment in Seoul, where she and her mother would bond, late at night, over heaping plates of food.
As she grew up, moving to the East Coast for college, finding work in the restaurant industry, and performing gigs with her fledgling band–and meeting the man who would become her husband–her Koreanness began to feel ever more distant, even as she found the life she wanted to live. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, when Michelle was twenty-five, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.
I guess I didn’t expect or realize that this would be a memoir entirely via food. I’m not terribly interested in descriptions of food or eating or cooking or really much of anything about food, so this was honestly a struggle for me. Pretty much my own fault, but I still would have given this a go had I realized, I just would have been more prepared for it. There are a lot of sections that are entirely about different ingredients, or the process of cooking a meal, or the experience of eating it. If food holds memories for you (or you just like food I guess) then it probably won’t be any issue. This is a huge part of why I didn’t connect to or enjoy this one much, as much as you can “enjoy” such a sad focus in a memoir.
The part I did know about this, with her mother’s slow passing and her grief and handling of it, wasn’t exactly an easy read either. As expected. It made me simultaneously extra grateful for my own mother still being healthy and alive, and extremely melancholy and sad at the thought of someday having to go through her death (and that’s the best case scenario where I die first and she has to handle the death of a child).
There was one section describing dressing her mother just after her death but long enough that rigor mortis had set in. It was a single paragraph, and it was so raw and visual and painful that it was all I could read from the book for that day. I picked it up, read that paragraph, and set it down.
I was surprised by how very very honest Michelle is with her emotions and thoughts in this. A lot of what she admits to are things that are likely common, but most people would not want or be able to admit to themselves, let alone the public via memoir. One example that sticks out to me is when her father is breaking down, saying he knows she wishes it were him dying instead of her mother, and he wishes the same. Michelle assures him that’s not the case, but comments to the reader that in “a deep ugly part of her heart” (approximate quote), she totally did feel that way. Favorites aren’t supposed to be a thing, but they are obviously a thing. We’re human. It happens. And that added a whole extra interesting layer of guilt to the grief. There were a lot of moments like that. There’s no sugar coating in this story of death, despite all the food.
My rating here reflects my experience, as always. It was a painful, difficult read, which I had to stop frequently to allow myself to recover. But before that and intertwined was the strangely contrasting dullness of listening to descriptions of food. It was weird to go from writing that made me feel so strongly and so painfully, to writing that bored the heck out of me and inspired only dullness. It made for a bit of a whiplash experience, and as I said earlier, it took about half the book for me to feel “into” it.