All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir, by Nicole Chung [Review]

A memoir is difficult when the subject is an unexceptional person whose life had few interesting aspects. This would have been a fine short story. “Mommy, am I a real Korean?” her daughter asks her at age five. She thought about it. She had been adopted by a white family after her Korean parents gave her up. She had always been told it was a loving sacrifice and was “for the best.” She believed it. It turned out not to be entirely true, and it had made for a difficult childhood for her – growing up looking different from her parents and from everyone else in her small Oregon town. She had discovered the real truth as an adult, and now she faced her young daughter, questioning her own heritage.

Then, pick up the book at chapter . . . well, there are no chapter numbers, so all I can say is about four chapters from the end. The story about how she decided to learn to speak Korean, as her daughter was also learning, and through the language she discovered a missing piece of her heritage is a beautiful little story. It’s not a novel. The problem with this book as a memoir is that the first 85% is a very long-winded and emotionally flat recounting of the author’s childhood, marriage, and pregnancy. She wasn’t really tortured by her adoptive status, but she tries to make that dramatic, but in a very detached way. There is very little angst or any other emotion in the storytelling. If you’ve ever listened to a woman tell the story of her pregnancy and birth, it was probably more interesting than this one – and much, much shorter.

I appreciate the importance of a story like this to people who were adopted, but I’m sure there are more heart-felt versions of this kind of story. I’m sure the expression of exclusion and isolation from a non-White person living in White family and a very White part of the country is poignant to some readers and it’s a message worth delivering. The point of wanting a connection to your family and history is also a familiar theme. In a novel, these themes would have been woven into a compelling story with characters and plot and action and emotion and crisis and resolution. Here, it’s a dull recitation of the author’s life without much to make you want to keep turning the pages. There is also a stark absence of discussion about the love and support provided by her adoptive parents, and how they impacted and shaped the author’s life — it’s as if they didn’t really count, which is disappointing.

There is a very narrow audience that is going to love this book. I’m not part of that audience. Be careful about whether you really want to spend the energy and time diving very deeply into this shallow pond.

I read this book as the selection for my book club. I’m marginally glad I read it, because there are some perspectives here that are worth wile. They just could have been written so much better. I have a difficult time understanding all the acclaim the book has garnered. (It’s also amazing that a major publisher with a high-profile book has an obvious grammar error in the book blurb on amazon, which may be fixed someday, but for now after 500+ reviews it’s pretty sloppy.)

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