Cleverly concatenated stories about the experience of Korean immigrants make up Woo’s loosely structured novel.
The story initially concerns a brother and sister, Joon-a and In Sook Kim (aka David and Sue), revisiting Peddlers Town, a “sad-sack of a strip mall” where a quarter of a century before their parents owned an intermittently successful gift store, which has since been torn down to make way for a Home Depot. After this brief opening we’re whisked back into the past, to the time when their father set up shop, trying to become successful before sending for his wife back in Korea. David becomes one of the primary narrators, as he recounts with both humor and pathos his growing up and gradual Americanization. Along the way we meet other shop owners in Peddlers Town, including Mr. Hong, the only other Korean, who owns In the Bag, a luggage store, and Dmitri, owner of HiFi FoFum. Everyone’s trying to make it, of course, not necessarily to strike it rich but to own a small piece of the elusive American Dream. Woo eventually shifts to a more neutral narrative voice, one that advances our understanding of characters who exist on the periphery of David’s world. The Kims decide that to become more authentically American they should speak English, so they enroll in an evening ESL class, where they discover that the usually deferential Mrs. Kim is falling for her American instructor. The bemused tone shifts when an American detective puts out his shingle in Peddlers Town and then follows Mr. Kim, only to discover that on his shopping trips every Monday he’s been cheating on his wife.
A novel that both delights and instructs.