Marilyn and Me

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‘The person I’m talking about isn’t really me, but an insane woman I am embodying. I can’t be myself. That’s the only way I can live with myself. I can only exist if I act out all of my truths along with all of the falsehoods.’

This short novel from Korean author Ji-min Lee centres on the character of Alice J. Kim, a young prematurely-grey haired woman working as a typist at a US military base just after the end of the Korean war. She is appointed as translator for the (real-life) visit of Marilyn Monroe to South Korea in early 1954 to boost the morale of the remaining US troops posted in the country. As the novel progresses Alice’s past, which has haunted her for years and is hinted at now and again, is revealed as the two main loves of her life – Yo Min-Hwan and Joseph – reappear in her life, forcing to face her demons. The book switches between 1954 and the years 1947-50, when Alice – real name Kim Ae-sun – is caught up in the Korean war, fleeing as events unfold around her. She is particularly haunted by thoughts of two little girls, named Chong-nim and Song-ha, and as events are finally related to us in a letter Alice writes we learn the true horrors of the Korean conflict and what has happened to her.

The two main characters seem to be the focus for the author, as she tries to make parallels between the two: the damaged, traumatised Alice and the (it seems) equally damaged Monroe, both of them putting on a front for the people around them. The climax of the book finds Alice, spattered in yellow paint and sitting in Monroe’s hotel bedroom: ‘Well, here we are, two fake blondes,’ says Monroe. This attempt to create another woman to contrast/mirror Alice’s predicament is also, more subtly, done by the use of the 1st-person present tense for the events in 1954, with Alice as the narrator (I laugh, I sit down, etc) and the use of the past tense for the historical events of the previous years (I stomped around the room, I waited, etc). For me, this worked for the book, as it underlines Alice’s attempts to distance herself from the past, to try to forget the person she was then, but as events unfold this is broken down and the novel ends in the now, in the present tense, as she starts to look forward.

There is an interesting afterword from the author in which she reveals that the inspiration for the book came from two photographs, one of a female interpreter during the war and another of Marilyn Monroe. I say this because, as much as I enjoyed the book, the two parts – Alice’s past and the present visit of Marilyn Monroe – just didn’t blend together. The ambition is there, but it either needed more flesh on the Monroe story to really make a parallel between the two women, or it needed to be more in the background and focus more on Alice. As it is, the Monroe visit seems merely to act as an excuse to reintroduce characters from Alice’s past who somehow get themselves attached to the visit. The translation, done by Chi-Young Kim, is fine, but whether it’s a problem with the original text or it is something in the translation, again it doesn’t quite flow. There are an enormous number of similes throughout the book; everything is ‘like’ something else, and it starts to become a little irritating.

On the whole, this is an admirable attempt at exploring the horrors of war, and the trauma of its survivors. There is a sub-plot involving spies and Alice is roped in to helping, which is all a little unbelievable, and again detracts from the impact of the main story. The themes of female identity, of the power of names and the play of real/fake appearances are all there, and are intriguing, but for me they are let down too much by the structure and some of the writing. I really wanted to like this more, so 3 stars for ambition and the ideas.

(With thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC of this title.)
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This book wasn't at all what I expected, but it was brilliant.

Marilyn Monroe is visiting Korea and Alice is her translated for the trip.
Over the course of a few days you get a glimpse into Marilyn and personal and public life, but the real story is Alice's.

Through a series of flashbacks and memories the story of Alice's experiences of the Korean war are revealed.

Some of this book is brutal. But there is warmth and humour and sadness as very human stories of relationships and survival in extraordinary times emerge. 

Thank you Netgalley for thos advanced copy in return for an honest review. I love it!
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Set against the very raw aftermath of the Korean War, this little gem of a novel examines how post-war Korea welcomed Hollywood starlet Marilyn Monroe through the eyes of the PTSD-addled translator who guided her through the country. Though the translator is fictional, the realities of the war she suffered through are harrowing, intimate and horrifying, with Lee's brilliant prose expertly soaking up the atmosphere of being trapped in a war zone. 

For being so small- this book just about hits 160 pages- there is so much detail packed into every page. The horrors of war are embedded on every single pore of the main character, Alice. Lee captures with great skill the disillusion of post-war Korea, of the struggle between capitalism and communism that played out on their shores, of the refugee crisis and the struggle to return to normality once the conflict has played out. The author describes in her note as 'the forgotten war', and this book is a brilliant way to learn about the conflict, particularly if you are in the West. 

This novel not only offers a brief glimpse into the life of the troubled movie star, but her very appearance in this book mirrors the absurdity of the post-war Korean state and is a brilliant subject for this story. Though she doesn't feature often, she is important: she represents all that one could become, even when the image up close is not as beautiful as it could be. An astonishing, accomplished debut about unlikely friendship and the aftermath of war on the women.
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Such a beautiful and lyrical book. Not at all what I was expecting considering the title but I was more than pleasantly surprised. Ji-Min Lee's writing is so raw and viseral which makes this difficult to put down and even harder to forget about once you've finished reading.
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This was an emotional read about a woman traumatised by the Korean war. Alice ends up being a translator for Marilyn Monroe while on a brief tour in Korea. I barley knew anything about the Korean war, and this gave me an interesting insight. Jin-min Lee packs a lot of feeling in this slim novel and I had to keep reading. Highly reccomend this one.
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I thought this was An interesting read. I didn't know much about Marilyn Monroe or the war, so I found this book informative, although obviously a fictional account.
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This story had so much potential but unfortunately fell flat for this reader. Alice J. Kim (Monroe's assigned interpreter) is the narrator of this story which is more about the impacts of war on Kim herself than her relationship with Marilyn. Through a series of flashbacks to earlier in the war we learn Alice's story while she interprets for Monroe in the present day of the novel. But the so-called "relationship" with Monroe is underdeveloped and provides a flimsy link to the past. Overwritten at times - there were at least two weird similes a page in the first chapter - and just not all that engaging.
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While this book is well written, and the premise seemed like something I’d enjoy, I just couldn’t carry on with it. I didn’t feel any connection with the main character, and as such I didn’t connect with the story itself. I feel like some people could really enjoy this but sadly it was a miss for me.
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A short historical fiction novel based on true events… Yes please!

I enjoyed this, historical fiction is one of my favourite genres and this book did not disappoint.  Haunting and emotional. 
4 stars
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Torn between two lovers; needing to find solace in the middle of war, at one point Alice (Kim Ae-sun's anglicised name) remarks;
     "Joseph was a welcome respite from the real world, much like a lunchtime picnic that lets you forget about your problems for a few hours." 
In fact, not unlike the interlude offered by Marilyn Monroe's famous 1954 visit to the troops in South Korea, 6 months after the 27 July 1953 armistice that halted the bloody Korean War. Still present in force and with military tensions high, the American troops found themselves in a country that was completely devastated.

Mentally tortured by guilt about her affairs and the loss of two children, Alice is also physically and emotionally scarred by the abuse she suffered during time in a work camp. Gradually, we learn about her journey, prior to the novel's starting point, that has brought her to the moment where she is asked to accompany Marilyn on her brief visit. Striking up an unlikely friendship, neither woman sleeps without medication or appears certain in affairs of the heart-despite Monroe being newly married to Joe Di Maggio.

Individual moments reach beyond the page:
* using a type-writer, Alice's finger pressing 'down on a Y key, making a line of small bird footprints on the paper.'
*a small pocket-watch gifted to a child described as 'ticking away with difficulty just like me, cherishing time that can't be turned back.'
*waking up in a bare hotel room is 'like the stage set of a one-act play by an amateur theatre group.'
Vivid images indeed, but perhaps they stand out because many other 'lyrical' attempts are less successful; effortful and appear lost in translation.

Drawn to the book by its Korean setting and Marilyn's visit, at the end I felt that my interest (on both counts) had not been fully addressed. The book pursued neither one, nor the other, in depth.

So, in conclusion, perfectly readable but unsatisfying.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my advance copy in return or an honest review.
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Coming out on 11th July this year Marilyn and Me, translated from Korean by Chi Young Kim, takes place in 1954 when Monroe visits American troops stationed in Korea after the war. A young woman named Alice, working as a typist on a US base, is designated to be her translator for the entirety of the trip. But Alice is harbouring many dark, painful secrets, and the novel flits back in time to before and during the conflict to uncover them and discover why Alice seems to have given up on life.
As you can tell from my small blurb, the main focus is on Alice rather than Marilyn. Alice is very much the driving force behind the narrative; we begin and end the novel with her. She will be quite a divisive character as she isn’t particularly likeable, especially in the first half. As a victim of war she is traumatised by what she has gone through so she doesn’t necessarily act rationally in situations. Understandable. But the way she treats and talks about people is quite horrible and her behaviour in that regard will put some readers off. Also her actions prior to the war starting are reprehensible. But I found her a really tragic yet fascinating character; I couldn’t stop thinking about her. In many ways she is a perfect mirror image of Monroe, another woman who has also suffered greatly in the past. But whilst she hides her sorrow (or at least attempts to escape from it) behind a glamourous persona, Alice seems to wallow in self-pity. This makes her both pathetic and sympathetic, and she will be either be a love them or hate them character.
With translated work I always find it hard to decipher how much credit for the writing goes to the author and to the translator. But either way, there are passages of Marilyn and Me that are very well-written. There was a beautiful line about the letter Y on a typewriter making marks on paper like a bird’s foot on snow. It was just little moments like that, that captured my imagination and reflected elements of characters’ personalities. Another image features Alice lingering on a bench at a train station after her lover has boarded and left. It conveys the loneliness that she feels, both then and in the present. Yet there were other aspects of the book that I didn’t enjoy as much, one being the romantic interest. Without giving too much away, Alice’s lover is necessary to drive the plot forward but other than that, I didn’t really know why he was there. I didn’t understand what Alice saw in him or really knew what he was doing during the war. He feels like a blank canvas that someone has forgotten to draw on; there didn’t seem to be any personality.
If you go into Marilyn and Me expecting a novel about Monroe, you will be disappointed. She is very much a secondary character to Alice. As the title suggests, the narrative is told from Alice’s perspective and it is her that guides the reader (and Monroe) through this war-torn country. I preferred the second half of the book to the first; this may be because of Alice’s lover as I mentioned above. But overall, I enjoyed the novel. It is heart-breaking at points but ultimately it has a really nice, life-affirming message within. There were some problems I had but I came away from Marilyn and Me really liking it and wanting to read more about the Korean War.
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1954, the war in Korea is over but there are still some soldiers waiting to see their big star come for a short visit: Marilyn Monroe. Alice J. Kim, working as a translator for the Americans, is one of the few Koreans fluent in both languages and who could accompany the blond film star on her tour. But with the arrival of Marilyn also comes somebody else Alice had almost forgotten: Joseph, her former lover who turned out not to be a missionary but an American spy. Alice thought she could leave her past behind, like the war, just bury it all under the ruins and build a new life. But now, it all comes up again.

Other than the title suggests, the novel is not really about Marilyn Monroe and her visit to Korea. She appears as a character, yes, and I found she was nicely depicted, a sensitive woman lacking all kind of allures one might assume. However, first and foremost, it is a novel about Alice and the two loves she had: first, Min-hwan, a married man working for the government, and second, the American Joseph. None is the loves is meant to last and the political developments in the country add their part to these unfulfilled loves.

What I found interesting was the insight in the possible life of a Korean woman at the time of the war. I have never read about it and this part of history is not something I know much about. Nevertheless, the book could not really catch me. Somehow I had the impression that the two stories – Alice’s one the one hand and Marilyn’s visit on the other - did not really fit together and especially the last seemed more a feature to make the story a bit more interesting by adding a big name. 

„These sleeping pills are a better friend than diamonds for those of us who want to forget their past.“ 

Parallels between Marilyn and Alice are evoked: a past they want to forget, well-known lovers who in the end always decide against the affair and for their wife, the change of name to start anew - but the link is too weak to work for me. Unfortunately, Alice also remains a bit too distant, too hard to grasp and to really feel sympathy for her and her fate.
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A great read- heartbreaking. About love, life, war, loss and betrayal.
Thank you to both NetGalley and Harper Collins uk for my eARC in exchange for my honest unbiased review
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It is February 1954 and Marilyn Monroe is about to interrupt her honeymoon to make a brief trip to Korea to entertain the US troops stationed there.

This is not just the starting point for this book, but is also a historical event. There are pictures here: https://mashable.com/2016/08/21/maril....

Meanwhile, a Korean woman with a troubled past is selected to be a translator for Monroe and to accompany her during the whirlwind tour. This woman is our narrator: Alice J. Kim which is a name she has adopted in preference to her Korean name Kim Ae-sun. This is one of the hints we get that there is trouble in the past:

Very few know my real name, or why I discarded Kim Ae-sun to become Alice.

So begins a story that track two threads gradually bringing them together. In the novel’s present day, the narrator spends time with Monroe and we watch as Monroe struggles to hold it all together but, more importantly for the book, Alice’s past begins to catch up with her with some figures from that past gradually re-appearing. In the novel’s recent past, we learn about the events that lead to Alice describing herself like this:

I am Alice J. Kim —my prematurely gray hair is dyed with beer and under a purple dotted scarf, I’m wearing a black wool coat and scuffed dark blue velvet shoes, and my lace gloves are as unapproachable as a widow’s black veil at a funeral. 

Why is she prematurely gray? Why does she wear lace gloves? The answers to those, and other, questions are told in a sad story.

The story about Alice’s past feels well-developed if slightly predictable. The side stories about Marilyn (which give the book its UK title) and about spies (which give the book it’s American title) feel very under-developed.

I was left, I have to admit, slightly dissatisfied at the end of the book. The main story is revealed one step at a time to the reader which means, in effect, that the reader can always make a good guess about what the next development will be (and it is normally the one you would expect). The one thing that isn’t obvious to guess rather takes the sting out of Alice’s guilty feelings and makes the end of the story a bit of an anti-climax (although it also serves to demonstrate the effect of war and trauma on a person's psyche). And the other stories that surround this main story don’t seem to ever develop into much.

I enjoyed some of the writing. For example, this made me smile when Alice is using a typewriter:

Startled, my finger presses down on the Y key, making a line of small bird footprints on the paper.

And I appreciated this image:

Just thinking about that time is exhausting; my memories of the war are landmines.

And there are many other arresting sentences. It’s just that, for me, the whole becomes less than the sum of all those parts.

2.5 stars rounded up.

My thanks to 4th Estate for an ARC of this book via NetGalley.
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"February 12, 1954 I go to work thinking of death.
...
I avoid the eyes of the begging orphans wearing discarded military uniforms they’ve shortened themselves. The abject hunger in their bright eyes makes my gut clench."

이지민's "나와마릴린" has been translated by Chi-Young Kim - best known for 신경숙's (Kyung-Sook Shin) Please Look After Mom as well as books by 김영하 (Young-Ha Kim) as Marilyn and Me.

That's a direct translation of the original title, but in the US the book is being published as The Starlet and the Spy, which gives the book a rather misleading flavour.

The novel opens in South Korea in February 1954, just 6.5 months after the 27 July 1953 armistice that halted the bloody Korean War, but with military tensions still high, American troops present in force, and the country itself completely devastated.

That month, in history as well as in the novel, Marilyn Monroe took a detour from her honeymoon in Japan with Joe DiMaggio to visit the US troops. Monroe herself is recorded as having said that the trip "was the best thing that ever happened to me. I never felt like a star before in my heart. It was so wonderful to look down and see a fellow smiling at me," 

Some wonderful photos can be found at https://mashable.com/2016/08/21/marilyn-monroe-korea/?europe=true#_U6ZNTniBqqs

The novel itself is narrated in the first person by Alice J. Kim, an Anglicised version she has taken of her birth name:

"I am Alice J. Kim —my prematurely gray hair is dyed with beer and under a purple dotted scarf, I’m wearing a black wool coat and scuffed dark blue velvet shoes, and my lace gloves are as unapproachable as a widow’s black veil at a funeral. I look like a doll discarded by a bored foreign girl. I don’t belong in this city, where the ceasefire was declared not so long ago, but at the same time I might be the most appropriate person for this place.
...
Very few know my real name, or why I discarded Kim Ae-sun to become Alice."

Alice is clearly very troubled: the lace gloves hide scarred hands, and early on she confesses to a friend trying to reach out to her, and so to the reader:

"You can’t understand my pain. Do you know why? I’ve killed. I’ve killed a child . And then I went insane and tried to kill myself. I failed at doing that so I went crazy."

Alice has been chosen as the translator and companion for Marilyn Monroe on her trip and the story alternates between an account of Monroe's trip and Alice's own flashbacks, rather carefully controlled and drip-fed to the reader, as to how she ended up in this place, and what she means by her comments above. 

The flashbacks give us some historic context, particularly the hand-over from Japanese colonial rule to US military occupation in the South, and a divided country, and how centrist attempts to build a one-nation democracy were squashed by extremists on both sides:

"Everything remained the same, except the flag flying in front of the former Japanese Government General of Korea building had changed from the Japanese flag to the American one.
...
My political involvement was limited to supporting Yo Unhyong solely because of his resemblance to leading men in black-and white Hollywood films; when he was assassinated I was crushed that we wouldn’t see such a good, handsome politician in all of Korea any time soon."  (see https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/resource/cold-war-history/yo-un-hyong)

But much of the story is very personal to Alice, who, in Seoul when the war broke out finds herself thrown from American rule, to North Korean occupation and back again as Seoul changes hands rapidly in a succession of battles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Seoul), and she also finds herself displaced both to the North and then later to the enclave around Busan in the southwest.

The dripping of information finally leads us in the closing pages to what she did - although her own culpability in the terrible events described is rather less than her dramatic confession in the opening pages suggests. In terms of narrative tension this makes for something of an anti-climax, but it rather effectively shows how someone can punish themselves over unjustified guilt.

In the present day story we get only limited insights into Monroe herself. The narrator/author is keen to show her human side - the goosebumps as she performs in the freezing conditions wearing a short dress, her reliance on pills to get a good night's sleep, her tired waking face before she puts on her make-up and transforms into the glamorous stars the troops are clamouring to see - but Marilyn doesn't open up to Alice, and the author chooses not to speculate, about the health of a marriage where the couple end up honeymooning in different countries, other than a throwaway joke: “The baseball diamond is clearly not a girl’s best friend.”

There is also a present-day spy story in which Alice is caught up, with links back to her past, but this feels rather peripheral - hence my comment on the misleading US title.

As the real focus of the novel here is Alice, and how, as someone whose life was destroyed in the war and by her residual guilt, her relationship with Marilyn Monroe, the most glamorous woman in the world, helps her to decide to move forward and live. As the author says in an afterword:

"All women who survived war had the right to revel in being alive, dancing and singing like Marilyn. It made me understand the women who frequented the dance halls in post-war Korea, which was a hotly debated issue at the time. Maybe they were emitting light and embracing life because they had experienced death. I wanted to write about the women who struggled to come alive.

Overall - this is not my usual fare: my favourite Korean authors are avant-garde ones like Bae Suah and Han Kang as well as Yi Munyol and it's not a novel I would have read if not K-literature, so I am not best placed to appraise it. 

But a well-written story, describing both an unusual historical moment (when I first saw the title I assumed Marilyn Monroe's visit was fictitious) and given an worthwhile psychological insight into the effect of the war on young Korean women's lives and loves. 

For purely personal taste probably 2.5 stars but I will award 4 here for its wider appeal to other readers.
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Marilyn and Me – Ji-min Lee

I picked this on a complete whim. In fact, the only reason it appealed to me was because I am interested in Marilyn Monroe’s life and because I have read absolutely nothing that is based in Korea, let alone anything that features the Korean War which is a conflict I’ve never really heard anything about. My good God, this was so much more than I expected it to be! If you take anything away from this ramble, just know that this is a powerful and gripping story that packs one hell of a story into a very small amount of pages.

Set in 1954, in the aftermath of the Korean war, Marilyn and Me unfolds over the course of four days, when Marilyn Monroe took time out from her honeymoon with Joe DiMaggio to tour Korea, performing for the US soldiers stationed there. Her translator is Alice, a typist on the US base – where she is the only Korean woman making a living off the American military without being a prostitute – although everyone assumes she is. As these two women form an unlikely friendship, the story of Alice’s traumatic experiences in the war emerges, and when she becomes embroiled in a sting operation involving the entrapment of a Communist spy she is forced to confront the past she has been trying so hard to forget.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that this is such a short book and the cover is pink and cute, this is one hard hitting and engaging novel that was over all too quickly for me.

While this is about Marilyn Monroe and is based on her real life visit to American soldiers based in South Korea following the Korean War, it is almost a sub plot. This focuses much more on Marilyn’s translator, Alice, a woman who is dealing with severe PTSD after her experiences during the war. We move between the time before the Korean War, during the war and the 1954 when the south is occupied by American soldiers and starting to rebuild places like Seoul that have been devastated by the fighting. Alice is definitely a fascinating hero and the more we learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.

The introduction of Marilyn Monroe gives Alice a chance to compare her life with someone elses, we all know that Marilyn’s was a life of hardship and pain, but so was Alice’s, this is a woman who is traumatised by the horrors of war and is still affected by not only her experiences of the war, but also her connection to the men she loved and lost before the war even began. Her chance meeting with Marilyn opens up an unlikely friendship and through this, Alice is given a glimpse at hope and joy, despite her struggles and her past catching up to her. I mentioned before that this is a short book, it is, standing at just 176 pages, but there is a lot going on in those pages, Marilyn and Me is a book about war and trauma, it is about loneliness and of course female friendship and the life of a Hollywood starlet.

Marilyn and Me is a dark, but sumptuously written story and for something written in Korean and then translated into English, works really well. The descriptions and the use of language aren’t lost in translation and if anything, makes the whole thing much more immersive. The narration isn’t in any way perfect (is anything?), there are a bit too many tight lipped smiles for my liking, but there is nothing rushed or dragged out about it, so those little repetitions are nothing more than a small niggle.
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An emotional read about survival in the face of trauma set in 1954 just after the Korean war and with flashbacks to events in the run-up to, and during, the war itself. The surprising element is the presence of Marilyn Monroe on a brief tour of American bases, entertaining the troops and, unknowingly, giving Alice a glimpse of joy and life. 

Mostly the writing is clear and involving but there are way too many stretched similes which give a fake, try-hard edge to the prose - they fall off towards the end, could be red-pencilled throughout to make the writing cleaner. 

It's admirable that the author has packed so much into so few pages without it feeling rushed or superficial - an emotive, haunting read.
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Marilyn and Me is the story of a woman traumatised by the Korean War who ends up as the translator for Marilyn Monroe during her visit to Korea performing for US soldiers. Alice works as a typist on an American military base in Korea, where she colours her hair with beer and is haunted by the horrors of the war. An unlikely chance to translate for Marilyn Monroe gives her a chance to compare her life to the star's, but it isn't long before men from her past are catching up with her and the truth of what happened to her during the war starts to unfold.

This is a powerful and gripping novel, that goes deep into Alice's emotions and into the situation in Korea during the war. It is short and fast paced, moving between the past (just before and during the Korean War) and the novel's present (1954) to unfold Alice's life and a web of survival and betrayal. It is both a book about war and trauma and a book about a lonely woman having a brief and unlikely friendship with a Hollywood star.

Complex and interesting, Marilyn and Me takes a real life moment from history and constructs a narrative around it that looks at the personal horrors of war and espionage and the difficulty of survival even once the war is over.
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Inspired by two photographs, as the author's note informs the reader, Ji-min Lee's novel uses as backdrop the Korean War, the Forgotten War, and Marilyn Monroe's visit in 1954 to perform for the American troops. Though Alice, the protagonist of the story, is fictional, she is definitely fleshed out and cultivates sympathy, whilst, albeit the war experience through a civilian's perspective being the key theme of the novel, Ji-min Lee's poignant prose brings forth a memorable and unique novel.
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Wonderful heart wrenching and st times desperate book. It has virtually nothing to do with Marilyn and everything to do with life, loss, war and betrayal 

Korea is as much a mystery now as it was then and the impact of the war on civilians is what is really at the heart of this book

If you read one book this year, read this. You will not be disappointed
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