Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Secondhand World.
The story starts abruptly. From the first paragraph of Secondhand World, the reader knows that the main character, Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, has lost her parents in a fire. It is clear from the outset that this story will be a tragedy narrated by Isa, as she is commonly called. It should not be a surprise that many events over Isa’s lifetime leading up to the fire are also unpleasant, yet somehow it is.
This is a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s, with a twist. Isa struggles with her identity as an American with Korean-born parents. A biology teacher’s remarks to Isa seem especially crude:
And once when we were dissecting fetal pigs, she’d come over to me and said, “You people eat things like this over there, don’t you?” (pg 35) Isa’s mother does not help matters. She gives Isa money to start a fund so
that she can save for eye surgery to make her eyes look bigger and give her a more
Western look. Her father is a hard-working college professor with a temper who spends much more time at work than at home.
A horrific event that occurs when Isa is eleven leaves scars on her family. Isa never feels like she is a priority with her family after that.
Again, Isa’s teenage rebellion should not be shocking to her parents, but it is.
Her choices of friends and boyfriends illustrate her discontent with herself and
It was strange that it had never occurred to me before, that the one thing I sought for myself, the thing I had craved from the time I noticed my difference, was anonymity, the blankness of an American face, an American recognition. And what had I done? Fallen in love with an albino. (pg 126)
The romance ends badly, and her further disillusionment with her parents leaves the reader wondering how anything good could possibly come out of her story.
Secondhand World is Min’s first novel. The chapters are quite short, and it takes some time to get into the rhythm of the book. Occasionally a chapter will jump to a completely different topic that
is not brought up again. Many stories of children born of immigrant parents are set in large cities, but Secondhand World deviates from this by being set mostly in a suburb in upstate New York. Some of the events during Isa’s high school days seem commonplace, like trying out for the drama club or dating a boy she is not really sure she likes. Others, like heading for California with her best friend and her boyfriend or spying on her mother, are more unusual. Isa’s parents and her relations with them do play a significant role in the story, and knowing their fate makes even mundane interactions significant.
I wonder if any eighteen-year-old can be as self-aware as Isa, but maybe I have just forgotten what being eighteen is like. I am not sure I would recommend the book to my own daughter when she is a teenager, but that is mainly due to some explicit sex scenes. I’d rather she discover a book like this on her own. Secondhand World is a well-written, thoughtful, and anguish-filled book. The book is a stand-alone read, but I almost hope there will be a sequel, just to see where the author might take Isa next.