... extraordinary depth and sensibility ... With great care and mastery of poetic language, translator Kim brings Lee’s novel to English-language readers, a large swath of whom it will speak to. Lovers of historical fiction will appreciate Lee’s attention to dates and details, while readers seeking intrigue will find plot aplenty, and it’s all tangled in a tragic romance built up to epic proportions. Philosophically minded readers, too, will appreciate how Alice’s moments of introspection provide keen insight into life’s deepest questions.
... a lush tale of historical fiction ... Using the interaction between two women from vastly different walks of life, [Lee] forms connections between them and weaves a story that contains elements of despair, whimsy, and surprise ... Unique in its setting, mid-1950s Korea newly split by communism after two devastating wars, this brief novel will be appreciated by readers who enjoy historical context and/or strong female protagonists.
... bleak but whimsical and, yes, hopeful ... Chi-Young Kim's translation is both spare and emotionally evocative, suiting a narrator who is simultaneously desolate and childishly yearning ... Born of a curiosity about human relationships in unusual times, The Starlet and the Spy asks the questions: What if we met across a divide? What if a despairing young Korean woman reached into Marilyn Monroe's makeup bag for a lipstick, or a way out? In a decidedly optimistic turn, Lee leaves her ending open, and her reader free to wonder what might be next for Alice.
Trauma is the unspoken lynchpin on which this slim novel turns, but the interest lies in how different characters cope ... Accomplished translator Chi Young Kim is behind the book’s English edition, but not even her skills could overcome the fact that this is, fundamentally, a Korean book. The painful history it recounts, the values it depends on, the criticisms it makes are all endemically situated. It feels like something is lost in translation ... And although the themes are weighty and the historical context harrowing, Alice’s actions are highly improbable and the plot needlessly convoluted, not helped by the author’s choice to make the timeline an emotional rather than a linear one. Monroe’s portrayal is also rather disappointing: part-bimbo, part-wounded soul, all stereotype, she mostly acts as a symbol of American cultural solipsism, as well as the bustling foreground for Alice’s internal and external journey. The thinly-veiled racism by American characters towards Koreans is mostly unexplored, as is the internalized racism in Alice towards a Marilyn she is both disdainful towards and envious of ... a readable thriller-romance novel.
... heartbreaking ... The presence of Marilyn doesn’t dominate the story, but when she helps Alice to face despair simply by the force of her personality, her impact is as dramatic as her short life. This is a well-told historical snapshot, but at the center is the author’s convincing portrayal of the pain Alice experiences. Lee’s touching examination of the long shadow of a war cast over one woman will leave readers intensely moved.
... [an] able translation by Kim ... The gritty truth is too often undermined by the banal love triangle, and Kim is perhaps overly fond of pronouncements like 'A woman’s beauty is powerful enough to change her fate, though it becomes useless as she grows old.' The Marilyn frame story does pose revealing parallels between two outwardly privileged ingénues with inner scars ... An intermittently chaotic novel which manages to snatch poignancy from the jaws of cliché.