Pachinko (★★★★☆)

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Min Jin Lee   *   Grand Central Publishing   *   February 7, 2017   *   496 Pages

Advanced Reader Copy provided through Amazon Vine.

Sunja is living in Korea with her mother when she discovers she is pregnant. When she tells the baby’s father, he reveals that he is already married with three children. He loves her, but he (obviously) can’t marry her. Though he offers to take care of her and the baby–and is, in fact, excited by the idea of having a young mistress to bear his children–Sunja refuses. Sunja would rather live a shame-filled life than one of dishonesty.

But she does understand that her decision puts her widowed mother in a very bad spot. Lucky for Sunja, a visiting minister happens to hear about her situation and takes pity on her. He agrees to marry her and raise the child as his own, so long as she is willing to move to Japan, become a Christian, and forget about the baby’s father. The minister is a decent man–and, anyway, Sunja doesn’t have much of a choice–so she accepts his proposal. Pachinko focuses mostly on Sunja’s life in Japan and then, as the years pass, on the lives of her two sons, as well.

At almost 500 pages, this is a long, sweeping saga of a story. It covers nearly 100 years of history with Sunja and her family, spanning several generations. The book gets fairly deep into descriptions of Korean and Japanese culture in the 20th century, focusing especially on the discrimination Koreans were forced to endure while living in Japan during that time–something I knew basically nothing about before reading this story. Pachinko reminds me a lot of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, in that it’s a relatable story that aims to educate as much as it entertains (though, thankfully, Min Jin Lee skips the preachy ending).

Pachinko is extremely well-researched and well-written. The writing style is engaging and easy-to-follow, and the characters are nicely-developed and likable (even when they aren’t). I would agree with other reviewers that the novel starts out more successfully than it ends. Reading about Sunja’s sons and their relationships could get tedious at points. Also, the author’s tone changes when she talks about them–the writing becomes less reserved and more crude–and that felt like an abrupt, somewhat odd shift to me.

But even if the story peaks in the beginning and gradually loses steam as it chugs along, it’s not at such a steep decline that I ever stopped wanting to read it. I still really enjoyed being in Sunja’s world, and I was actually sad when I finished the book.

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