Click here to read reviewer Cheryl Morgen's take on Secondhand World.
Setting her evocative and sensual story in the tremulous 1970s, author Katherine Min
writes an unusual coming-of-age story featuring adolescent rebelliousness and free-love and rock concerts, and the inevitable problems of cultural disorientation as a young Korean American family tries to make a home for themselves in upstate New York.
in the house fire that killed her parents, eighteen-year-old Isadora (Isa) Myung Hee Sohn finds herself bereft and adrift. As Isa tries to put the pieces of the puzzle into place, she realizes that although her parents were deeply in love, their marriage was mired in disenchantment. The reasons for the fire are mysterious at best – was it an accident or was it suicide?
In South Korea, these two unlikely people came together: a lovely young woman from a wealthy family and the enigmatic man who bought her to America, who struggled with his past in the Korean War and with the seemingly trouble-free closeness and easy informality of America.
As a child, Isa is propelled by her beautiful mother's material prophecy that she will be both pretty and rich, but for reasons that Isa cannot begin to fathom, she's made at school to feel as though there's something wrong with her.
The teachers and the kids on the bus tell her so: "they could see it in the slant if my eyes and the sallowness of my skin."
All through her childhood years she feels such a devastating sense of loneliness
and realization she does not belong that she figured it would never entirely leave her. When tragedy strikes the family, Isa steadily drifts away, the misfortune exposing them for the careless foreigners they are, "unable to keep their young from harm in this complex country of dishwashers and delivery vans."
Through her teenage years, Isa finds comfort and companionship with her best friend, Rachel, and her
hippie-ish family, where dinner table flatulence is seen as a source of amusement and bread constantly bakes in a house that is always bathed in a kind of sloppy grace.
During these turbulent times, she meets the albino "Hero," an eccentric rocker who awakens her sexually and who ends up convincing her and Rachel to run away to California with him. Both outsiders, Isa seems drawn to Hero and his easy emotional openness, "his skin the colour of moonstone, cloaked with a subterranean sheen that seemed to make him glow."
Their relationship is cemented at a rock concert, with all the drinking, dope, and experimental sex, and they
are totally aware that they are different from those around them. Damaged by her parent's anxious conservatism and the constant self-doubt that plagues her life, Isa is unable to see herself clearly or appreciate their obvious love for her.
Min's protagonist seems trapped between two worlds - between the anguish of her immigrant parents, encapsulated in their émigré isolation, and her
strange new feelings, both emotional and sexual. But Isa's urge to break away inevitably comes at a price, particularly when she becomes obsessed with the idea of betrayal and with the fallibility of her parents' marriage.
In both terribly beautiful and terribly sad prose, Min writes a deeply personal account of the dilemmas facing the second-generation immigrant, where this young girl is forced to realize that we carry the baggage of our parents with us, the cracks reverberating through our lives, implicating us even as it separates us.