The Starlet and the Spy (US) / Marilyn and Me (UK)
This short but emotionally intense novel takes a real-life moment – Marilyn Monroe’s USO visit to the troops at the close of the Korean War – and imagines its impact on her translator, a tragic young woman named Alice J. Kim. Alice’s real name is Ae-Sun, but she was given her nickname by a former lover with whom she studied English, a skill which saved her life during the atrocities of the conflict. Now, in 1954, she is a traumatized survivor who struggles to find reasons to go on living, and her few days with the movie star offer her new hope but also frightening visitations from her past.
As she observes the genius of Monroe’s self-created persona and enjoys, thanks to the star’s innate kindness and empathy, some rare moments of human comfort, Alice begins to realize that there are many different ways for a woman to try to hold on to power in the face of a violent and uncaring world. Her time with a true artist rekindles her own interest in making art (she was employed by the People’s Republic as a propaganda artist before escaping the regime), and Monroe’s sympathy allows her to come to terms with what she has lost. The reader slowly comes to feel affection for a woman who sees herself as not just unlikeable but cursed. Lee wisely presents Monroe in small doses, providing a hopeful contrast to Alice’s self-loathing that sets up a natural unraveling of the secrets behind Alice’s trauma.
Lee is a screenwriter in Korea, and her facility for addictive plotting is evident here. The English translation is by Chi-Young Kim, who also translated Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, and she provides Alice’s voice with both intense emotion and sardonic humor.