Musings After Reading #2: Marilyn and Me (Lee, Ji-min)


And welcome to another, quite random book review. Today, I’m looking at ‘Marilyn and Me’ by Ji-min Lee or Lee Jimin/이지민, as she should really be known, being a South Korean writer.

TW// war, mental illness, suicide.

First, I’d like to discuss the book’s title in its different forms and the implications of these differences. The book’s original Korean title is ‘나와 마릴린’, which would directly translate to ‘I and Marilyn’. (나=I, 와=with/and particle, 마릴린=Ma-ril-lin/Marylin). Not surprisingly, the book’s original title is the most fitting. It rightfully places the yet nameless I – the main character and the narrator of the book-at the beginning of the title, showcasing that she is, indeed, at the centre of the novel; this is HER story.

The UK title of the translated novel flips the two people around and ends up with ‘Marilyn and Me’ (this was the title on the cover of the book I picked up). I’ sure that there are plethora of rules in the English language which would explain, why the name has to come first, before the pronoun or why and object pronoun (me) was chosen instead of the subject one (I). I am not qualified to comment on them but what I do know that, by placing Marilyn first in the title, the cover promises that she will be a much bigger part of the book, while in reality she is a secondary supporting character at best (and not one with the development that would exceed her stereotype). At first, I even thought that she was a fictional addition but that’s not the case. Monroe did actually perform in Korea in the post-war years, showcasing her status as truly a global, if very troubled, icon.

Marilyn Monroe performing in Korea, 1954.

The US publisher titled the book ‘The Starlet and The Spy’, which is an absolutely awful title because it spoils a major reveal in the book. Only in the second half do the spy character(s) are revealed. The change in the title might have occurred because there already was a piece of entertainment titled ‘Marilyn and Me’ – a TV movie (directed by John Patterson) from 1991.

Genre-wise, the book is a bit of a melting pot. It’s part historical drama, about the trauma that a woman experienced in Korea (not yet divided and then divided too) pre, during and post Korean War. It’s also part a romantic drama with a love triangle between people of varied and shifting identities and allegiances. It’s also a spy thriller and adventure novel with some twists, secrets, and reveals. I think the book might be the strongest when doing relationship drama – the feelings expressed in the book feel real and hurt.

As a historical drama novel, detailing the traumas of war, it is really good at presenting a singular view of war and a particularly female one. While it is great at providing the viewer with a subjective and very human experience (which I loved as an anthropologist), i wish it provided more context for those readers that might not be that in the know in terms of Asian and specifically Korean history (and, let’s be honest, looking at the current events, that’s a lot of people).

Trauma as a topic permeates the novel and there is an attempt to explore an individual’s journey of dealing with it. The journey is presented as rocky and uneven, which is very accurate. However, the connections between a few ‘events’ (suicide attempts) should have been elaborated on more, because the chapter ‘A Letter’ which begins with the plans for a second attempt comes at the reader a bit surprisingly.

When it comes to being an adventure thriller type of novel, the book is good, however, its reveals are not always understood due to the narrative being structured around the narrator’s emotions – so past events are presented as she remembers them instead of occurring linearly. This means that the reveals are not always fully truthfully and the story keeps shifting. it keeps the reader on their toes but might also confuse them.

When it comes to being a book about Marilyn, this novel is not that. The character of the mid-20th century icon is used to draw out the parallels between her and the man character. These parallels suggest that female experiences might share something that is underneath both of them, some kind of structure, some-kind of the roots. And yet, i wish the book also looked more at the differences between these two women: while they are superficially pointed out, the racism from both sides goes unsaid. And it’s not necessarily an outwards attack type of racism but rather the internalised aversion and uneasiness towards the unfamiliar.

If you are interested in reading more about Marilyn, I really both ‘The Prince, The Showgirl and Me’ and ‘My Week with Marilyn’ by Colin Clark (there is also a 2011 movie adaptation ‘My Week with Marilyn’, directed by Simon Curtis and starring Michelle Williams as Monroe). If you are interested in more South Korean literature, I really enjoyed both ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ (by Cho Nam-ju/조남주) and ‘If I Had Your Face’ by Frances Cha for their portrayals of the female experience. Han Kang’s (한강)’Human Acts’ is stellar at conveying the horrors of history. Haven’t had experience with much romantic Korean fiction but I’m sure there are many websites listing great romantic Korean TV dramas.

Thanks for reading! You can find more of my ‘book reviews’ on Instagram: @sharingshelves.

Published by Lou

Anti-social nerd, cinephile, and bookworm that is probably currently bopping along to some song or another and is also 75% radioactive fish, because she has spent half of her life in a chlorine-filled pool.

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