“Where did all the beautiful and hopeful young women go?” That was the thought that occurred to author Ji-Min Lee, looking back at the grim post-war years, and looking at a couple of photographs from the period: one of Marilyn Monroe performing for the US troops in Korea, and one of a female interpreter sandwiched between a UN soldier and a North Korean POW.
The story follows Alice (born Ae-sun) Kim, who used to be both beautiful and hopeful, now working as a translator for the US army, and Marilyn Monroe, at the peak of her beauty and hopefulness, having just got married to the baseball player Joe DiMaggio. They are in their honeymoon in Japan, and Monroe takes a detour to Korea to give some morale-boosting performances for the troops. It is February 1954. Alice is assigned as her interpreter, and a bond of friendship quickly forms between the two young women.
We know that Alice is somehow damaged, and we know that over the course of the book the causes of that damage will be revealed. Meanwhile there is plenty of action in the present, with the American star needing to be ferried around, Alice trying to find her adoptive daughter from whom she got separated during the terrifying Hungnam evacuation, and a side-plot involving North Korean spies.
Gradually the reasons for Alice’s fraught state emerge. She has had a sexually active youth, getting involved in a love triangle with two handsome men neither of whom are what they seem. In the immediate pre-Korean War years it must have been difficult to tell who was on which side. But both relationships traumatised her in some way, and in particular the relationship with the married Min-hwan leads to misunderstanding and tragedy in a war-torn Seoul that scarred Alice in more ways than one.
When in the present day Alice’s past catches up with her you can’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed by it all. There’s so much going on, so much backstory, so much trauma, that the reader becomes immunised, to the extent that when we learn that Alice is contemplating suicide we can’t quite figure out precisely why. And, given that the story is a first person narrative told by Alice herself, when a chapter opens with the announcement: “The last day of my life begins with beauty”, we wonder whether it is a ghost that has written the book (p 132 of my Kindle version). We also wonder where the beauty comes in. In context there is no beautiful start to the day, nor is Alice about to embark on the 1954 equivalent of the 20-step K-beauty regime. I have to confess that this was the point in the book when I began to lose interest. Then, half-way through the same chapter Alice is hauled off by the authorities to play a dangerous role in a plot to seize a North Korean spy, whom she alone is able to identify. “This is a significant wrench in my plan to kill myself today,” she drily observes (p 135). I wondered whether my thoughts about the book needed to be revised: maybe this is not a melodrama – it’s a comedy. And it has to be said that the way Alice ends up with blonde hair provides light relief from all the action and emotion.
Just as, in the end, it’s Marilyn that saves Alice, for me it’s Marilyn that saves the book. Beautiful, curvy, approachable Marilyn, who only realises what a star she is when standing in front of 10,000 enthusiastic troops as snow falls on the makeshift stage in Daegu. The narrative recreates well the breakneck and exhausting pace of a multi-stop entertainment tour, introducing relevant historical detail like the meeting with actress Choi Eun-hee, and credibly depicts the growing bond between the two central characters. But outside of that central relationship and the glamour of Marilyn in Korea, there’s too much else crammed into the novel for me to find it enjoyable.
Marilyn and Me is also known by the title The Starlet and the Spy