The Beauty and Tragedy of The Picture Bride: A Book Review

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The Picture Bride by Lee Geum-Yi, depicts orthodox human societal practises in a historic diaspora, including economic reasons, a lack of clarity, poor education, and no support from their parents. 

To tell you the truth, the line in the blurb, “Food and clothing are so plentiful, it grows on trees,” had such a powerful impact that I was glued to this one, simply with this one statement. This book tells the story of three women who chart out their lives as they work towards a better life, leaving behind what they have. A bold and beautiful testimony, this one is an account of such struggles amidst the Korean struggle of these difficult, tumultuous years. This being a translation, I must begin by commenting on how this was a tale signifying pure upliftment and transcendence. I mean, just imagine how, with such a restrictive and backward kind of setup, it must be so challenging for these brides to actually be able to fight it out, trying to simply live life on the terms they deserve—education, or a better life condition, for instance.

Having to separate from their families and friends too, just to be able to get into a relationship that is touted as something that gives them validation, this story revolves around Willow, Hongju, and Songhwa, who were the picture brides here, having come to the US from Korea in 1918. The main focus is on Willow, as the narrative is told from her point of view and mainly features what it was like to live in Hawaii through World War I and World War II.

All this while, Korea was struggling to become independent from Japan. It was an absolutely intense experience to read about Willow’s struggles to support her family. When she is staying with her impoverished family in rural Korea and is offered the opportunity to help her family and finally fulfil her own dreams, she discovers that Hawaii, the place she is finally travelling to, is not the island paradise she has pictured, and the husbands also do not live up to their expectations as they are depicted. 

Deeply moving, Lee has captured Willow’s struggles to carve out a space for herself, a niche of sorts, far from home, and it felt so unsettling and yet relatable at many times to read it. The dreams she had dreamt of before coming to Hawaii were somehow passed on, in a manner of sorts, to her kids, and it broke my heart to see how she struggled enough to see through the fact that her kids do not face the same fate. Her challenges as an immigrant, as well as the fact that she could never fully adhere to and become a true American, were unsettling yet a source of comfort. full-cycle experience to read and devour.

Regarding an interesting time in history, this one is poignant, and the immigrant depictions are completely relatable. With this kind of explicit, intricate detailing, it is clear that Lee has undertaken an extensive amount of research for the same. I mean, even the streets, cities, and towns she mentions in this one are actually there, existing in reality and not simply fictitious.

Coming to the character sketching, well alongside a brilliant depiction of historical events, Lee has splayed a magic weave of sorts for us to read and indulge in. 

For me, Korea is the enemy because our land is powerless. I lost my husband and my child. But Hawaii is not Korea; there you’ll have no country to protect. Once you are there, just forget us here, be happy with your husband and children, and enjoy life. That’s my only wish.

Her mother’s bitter voice was engraved on Willow’s heart as she fell asleep.

This little snippet from the book holds so much raw emotion and the power of words for me that I could barely look away and do much except feel the emotion Willow had as an introspection in these words. And yet, it broke my heart to see the way her dreams were shattered one by one in this one and how they eventually unfolded.

Another point I want to make here is the beautiful cover this one has, which is sure to entice one and all. 

Related: Book review of The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Overall, a well-researched, fascinating plot, this checks all the boxes, if not more, as Lee as a writer has managed to scatter more than just powerful characters or a strong piece of history here. This piece of fiction is something that will shatter your definition of a rosy-coloured life and give you a slice of what it really is like out there still, in some places, in the struggle called life.

Also included is an afterword on the type of translation used in this one. A special shout-out and acknowledgement also go to An Seonjae for this amazing piece of work!

The Picture Bride

Neelam Sharma:
Author: Lee Geum-Yi


So, I hope you guys liked the book review of The Picture Bride by Lee Geum-Yi.

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