The construction of the story, the framing of the narrative with what, in the end, is a pointless visit from an American movie star, makes the novel uneven.
In February 1954, eight months after the end of the Korean War and a month after her wedding to Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe went on a solo tour of Korea. The singer-actress performed 10 shows in four days to over 100,000 American military personnel. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Monroe would later recall. “I never felt like a star before in my heart.” It is this nugget of history that inspired Ji-Min Lee’s novel The Starlet and the Spy, translated by Chi-Young Kim.
The book opens up with Alice Kim, a Korean translator on an American military base, coming into work. She is not too fond of her job; it’s inane, consisting of “compiling useless information for the sake of binational amity” between the United States and South Korea. Still, it’s something that keeps her busy in postwar Seoul, a desolate landscape where “[e]veryone is expressionless, making [Alice] wonder why we even have eyes, noses or mouths.” Yet Alice, too, is guilty of being one of these “stone-faced people” who, surviving war, must live on with their trauma: “I look like a doll discarded by a bored foreign girl,” she says, “I don’t belong to this city, where the cease-fire was declared not so long ago, but at the same time I might be the most appropriate person for this place.”
The bleakness of postwar Seoul is brought into stark contrast when Alice’s boss announces that Marilyn Monroe is visiting Korea for a tour. The event would require an interpreter and Alice’s boss has signed her up. When Marilyn arrives, Alice is curious yet cynical: “Welcome, Miss Monroe! Welcome to Korea, which has turned into a mass grave from three years of bloody battle!” she calls out as the first crowd of soldiers greet her. Face-to-face, however, Alice is more congenial and professional.
If we were to believe the book’s promotional copy, what should follow, of course, is something of substance between Alice and Marilyn. (The UK title Marilyn and Me centers the relationship even more). And Alice does come to bond with Marilyn, even going far as sharing prescription pills with the actress. (“We are both women who are partial to our own emotions; I can guess that much from my fellow comrade in phenobarbital.”) She also sees Marilyn behind the blond bombshell mythology. She acknowledges her skills: “She’s a well-trained actress, and though her voice isn’t that powerful, she’s embodying her appeal with every gesture. You can’t do that if you’re not smart.” She comes to understand Marilyn as a born-performer: “She has to stand on stage, no matter how feverish and ill she is; she has to be in front of an audience no matter how lonely, misunderstood, and rejected she might feel.” It is, however, a superficial understanding of the starlet of the title.
Indeed, Marilyn is barely there at all and when Alice’s ex-lover pops up one forgets she’s even part of the story. Half-Japanese and half-American, Alice’s ex-lover Joseph is introduced to her during the war years by Min-hwan, her then-lover, as “a businessman and missionary.” As the war intensifies, Min-hwan, a communist sympathizer, sees his life begin to unravel. Hurt by his lack of attention, Alice secretly flees into the arms of Joseph, who she soon learns isn’t who he says he is (it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say he is, in fact, the spy of the title). As the war reaches its apex, both men disappear from Alice’s life, causing a chain of events that eventually leads to multiple tragedies and traumas.
Some of the most memorable scenes are from flashbacks to Alice’s life during the war. She tries to flee Seoul but with bombs raining down she fails. She stays in the city where “rotting corpses piled in the streets were a problem, but hunger was even a bigger issue” and is forced work for the communist forces as a cartoonist “assigned to draw portraits of Stalin.” None of which prepares her for what would eventually go on to haunt her after the armistice.
These scenes are harrowing and intense and they transform the stoic translator we meet in the first pages of the book to more complex human being—one who is a passionate lover, yet immature and easily jealous and one whose cynicism is rightfully earned through keen observation of human nature during the worst of times. At the same time, after learning what’s Alice’s been through, we see that The Starlet and the Spy is not only a story about the horrors of war, it’s also a survival story with an uncommon amalgam of acrimony and gratitude: “War had killed the love and hope and warmth within me,” Alice observes at the end of the war, “but it had also spared me.”
One wants to recommend this book because there is so much going on here: the drama of a wartime romance, the thriller-like pacing of a spy novel, the complex characterizations—especially of Alice. That Lee is also a screenwriter is obvious in the way that her writing is vivid and she knows the best way to keep an audience is to end a chapter in a cliffhanger.
Yet the construction of the story, the framing of the narrative with what, in the end, is a pointless visit from an American movie star, makes the novel uneven. There’s surely a heart to The Starlet and the Spy and we see it. One just has to chisel through all the rough superfluous stone on the surface to get to it, and that is unfortunate for an otherwise deeply felt meditation on war and its effect on the human spirit.