Review: Pachinko

20 Books of Summer 2018: Book 1
New strategy for 2018: Start with the long books.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is an ambitious book that follows four generations of Korean immigrants in Japan. The characters are engineered so that a reader can’t help rooting for them even though the book’s pace and structure keep the reader at a distance. Every few chapters, the narration shifts to follow a different character and the narrator’s voice remains coolly removed throughout. However, with the frequency of time jumps and so many characters to analyze, everyone is left a little thin—except maybe Sunja. She’s the only character given a key role in each generation:

First Generation: Yangjin and Hoonie
Lee knows how to draw a reader in! Hoonie’s introduction is a short nine pages, but sets the novel’s tone. Pachinko begins with Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910 when Hoonie is working in his family’s boardinghouse. His family is comparatively well-off, but poor and struggling. From the get, there’s something a little miraculous about Lee’s main characters in their extreme work ethic, patience, and tenacity. Hoonie marries Yangjin and they have a daughter. Thirteen years later (or two swift paragraphs), Hoonie dies and Yangjin is left alone to raise Sunja and run the boardinghouse.

Second Generation: Sunja
Sunja’s story underpins the entire book. The narrative swings back around to her experience even after the focus has moved to her grandchildren. My biggest gripe with the book is that no one else is quite as interesting as Sunja and her immediate circle. Looking back, though, I’m torn between seeing her as an interesting character or as one I just wanted to know more about. Her sections were the most engaging because she was the character with the most going on, who remained the most tight-lipped about her thoughts and feelings.

Sunja’s life is difficult and shaped by her sense of guilt and shame that her husband (Isak) married her with the knowledge that she was already pregnant by another man. Isak was in ill health and wanted to give her child a name for all that she and her mother had done for him. He’s the picture of virtue, perhaps annoyingly so. Even more annoying: When the time skips begin in earnest, Isak is the first character to be shortchanged. The rest of the book refers back to their marriage, but for all its importance to the plot and character development, it only exists in snatches.

Once time starts skipping, it doesn’t stop. There are long-awaited confrontations and conversations that are built up, then skipped over. Some information (all the key stuff) is told in retrospect, but heart and emotion is tough to convey via summary. At times, I felt like I knew these people through an annual holiday card or mass email, but even that gives the pacing too much credit—some characters are offstage for more than a decade. When they resurface, they’re fundamentally different people whose actions are hard to understand because they were also enigmatic as children and teens.

Third Generation: Noa and Mozasu
Noa and Mozasu are brothers and—for as much as their differences are harped upon—they end up being quite similar. They both possess their mother’s work ethic and are singularly (almost mechanically) proficient at their chosen professions. Both move up the ranks quickly and uncontested because they’re so much more honest and dedicated than any of their peers. In Lee’s defense, it’s hard to flesh out a character when he can meet and propose to his wife inside a single chapter, get married offstage, reappear a few years later for the birth of his kid, then, in the next chapter (and some years later), learn that his wife has tragically died. This death is sad in the sense that it would be a sad thing if it happened—it’s sad because the idea is sad, not because the reader had any attachment or investment in the character. When contrasted with more developed characters/scenes, this moment was especially flat. Lee is a very talented writer, but the growing cast size begins to negatively affect the quality of her storytelling in this section.

Fourth Generation: (assorted)
By this point, the narrative is checking in with the characters from Sunja’s section, Mozasu and Noa (along with their wives / partners, and a friend or two), PLUS the next generation of kids and their girlfriends. One girlfriend is limited to a few sex-crazed chapters (the chapter from her perspective is such a tonal misfit that I’m not sure why it was included). By the end, though, the book is steaming on so quickly that it’s not about the people it created in the early chapters. Or, maybe it is in places. I wouldn’t know—I skimmed for key names in the last 50 pages.

Overall: 3.6 (out of 5)
Pachinko is worth reading but I think its characterization as a “sweeping epic” is overblown. It’s more like a soap opera. It even has its own bad boy / good girl trope! (I left this out of the review for the most part. It was eyerolling-ly bad in a lot of places. She’s so good that maybe the crime boss will change his ways… *blech*) When Pachinko isn’t insightful and moving, it’s at least entertaining. When it’s shallow, it’s still interesting (until the last fifty pages or so).

Reviewed

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Read

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  2. Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith

Currently Reading

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Need to Read

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  5. Embers by Sándor Márai
  6. The Eternal Wonder by Pearl S. Buck
  7. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
  8. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  9. The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
  10. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  11. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  12. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
  13. While I Was Gone by Sue Miller
  14. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

6 Comments on “Review: Pachinko

  1. “This death is sad in the sense that it would be a sad thing if it happened—it’s sad because the idea is sad, not because the reader had any attachment or investment in the character.” These kinds of comments are a primary reason for reading your reviews.

    • Thank you! I was trying to find a way to express this that wouldn’t leave people thinking I was just coldhearted. 🙂

  2. reading it now and totally agree – more soap opera/Oprah book. Very moving but sad and stressful!!

  3. I am nearing the end of the audiobook version of Pachinko and I am about to ask Audible to refund the credit that I used for the book. Until I read your review I kept scratching my head at all the glowing other reviews out there (the New York Times, the Guardian, etc.). Is every long book set in a foreign land automatically excellent? There’s a way to write a big, long sprawling book and hold the reader’s interest, but unfortunately Ms. Lee has not written one in Pachinko. Why not follow Sunja really carefully throughout all the years? Who the heck cares about Solomon, Sunja’s grandson, for God’s sake? And while a 15-year-old boy’s daily sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend is enough to fire the imagination of any heterosexual male reader, I join with you in wondering why this and other sections were not edited out. In short: Thank you for your negative review of Pachinko. Shalom, Teddy Weinberger

    • Thank you! I think listening to it on audiobook might make the flaws more apparent. I listen to a lot of podcasts, but audiobooks put me to sleep. I’d have kept hitting the back button with this one: “Did I miss that big confrontation? Did we really skip another consequential year??”

      I’m currently reading Lee’s other book (Food for Millionaires) and much prefer it since the cast is a manageable size and nothing important has been glossed over (yet).

      • Perhaps you have not heard enough excellent Audiobooks: Try: There There by Tommy Orange, which has several different narrators (an incredible book by an extremely talented Native American writer). I listen more than I read, since I can listen while I bike, drive, and cook. Let me know what your final verdict is on Lee’s other book. With a book like Pachinko, which is so obviously NOT truly good, you start to wonder about the integrity of the whole book-review process. Shalom, Teddy

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