Chris McKinney’s The Queen of Tears is the story of Soong Nan Lee, a former Seoul movie star, exploring her familial struggles and her childhood trek across war-torn Korea. Now entering into mass publication, this book demonstrates McKinney’s ability to evoke “Honolulu’s lower depths with an insider’s authority and the zeal of a real writer” (Tom Farber). Declared “the most important young writer in Hawai’i today” by the local press, McKinney exhibits stunning prose and profound explorations of character and interconnection on a level not only warranting, but demanding mainland distribution. The Queen of Tears is a must read for anyone who has, at some point, wrestled with family obligation and personal ambition.
Front-loaded with deft character portraits, this multigenerational family saga, picked up from Hawaii's Mutual Publishing, fails to fulfill its considerable potential. An expatriate Korean former movie star, Soong Nan Lee has traveled to Honolulu in an attempt to solve her American children's highly American problems: elder daughter Wong Ju is keeping her loveless marriage together for the sake of her spoiled, alienated teenage son; middle child Donny is marrying a stripper named Crystal; and younger daughter Darian is dropping out of Berkeley and shacking up with Crystal's drug-dealer brother. The family's fights and reconciliations are told from alternating points of view and are intercut throughout with Soong Nan's flashbacks to her violent, glamorous past in 1950s Seoul. In describing Soong Nan's geisha-like training for stardom, McKinney (Bolohead Row) demonstrates a talent for restraint and tight pacing. It peters out, however, as the angles multiply: when Wong Ju's traumatic coming-of-age in Las Vegas is revisited at length, her character is lent a newfound depth, but McKinney abandons her for one of many floundering side plots. And just as the family as a whole is finally finding fulfillment and success by building a business together, an improbable disaster intervenes. The result is a shocking, unsatisfying shift into melodrama.