Nicole Chung’s new memoir chronicles healthcare and grief

Book Reviews

“A LIVING REMEDY” By Nicole Chung HarperCollins ($29.99)

This review was first published June 12, 2023 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nicole Chung saw no one in her overwhelmingly white Oregon town that looked like her. Born in Seattle to Korean parents, she was adopted at birth and, as a child and teen, always felt like an outsider.

Like many teens she could not wait to leave her small house in a small town, and imagined what that might look like. Often she wrote those thoughts down in the abundance of journals her parents bought to support her writing habit, one she hoped to turn into a career. Yet on a scholarship at a private university, she recognized her new world as foreign from the one in which she grew up.

Ms. Chung has a way of telling stories that is ordered and breezy. Her harmonious style will make readers nod along with understanding as her voice comforts and soothes, which is helpful because the stories she tells are not often soothing.

Her first book, “All You Can Ever Know,” followed her journey during her first pregnancy to connect with her biological family. She discovered she has a sister (they became close) and learned that her biological mother was anything but mothering and had told her family and friends her baby died at birth.

That book set the stage for this one to be even more compelling, yet “A Living Remedy” can stand on its own. If her first memoir was a master class about finding family, then “A Living Remedy” is about how to lose one.

Taking clear-eyed aim at the minutiae of the American health care system as her father is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, she watches the disease ravage his body. Her travails through the system can upset and, at times, defeat even an organized, list-making person like Ms. Chung. We are angered on her behalf and heartbroken when her father dies, a casualty of a failing health care system.

“I know the room you’ve been crying in is called America,” wrote the poet Ocean Vuong, and readers will cry in that room with Ms. Chung.

When her mother is diagnosed with cancer less than a year after her father’s death, Ms. Chung is knocked around like a pinball by fate, the health care system and the physical distance between her and her mother as COVID-19 barrels across the ocean. If it weren’t real, we could look away. Yet this horror demands to be read.

“Neither of us expected fairness in life but this, this was merciless,” she writes, and readers will have already thought the same thing.

Ms. Chung lays out grief in its various forms — her mother’s death is different than her father’s due to the pandemic — and charts the progression of grief across the country and through her immediate family.

“When you’re with someone that long, you know,” her mother told her about her father, “you’ll always have that life together, even when one of you is gone.”

Her mother died the day before what would have been her parents’ 47th wedding anniversary.

The searing look at the pain of losing a family member during the pandemic is brutal, yet the book touchingly circles around again and again to the love of family. Ms. Chung uses the experiences she lives to parent her own daughters and we see her family grow to hold the love she no longer can express to her parents.

At one point Ms. Chung jokes that she never quoted Czesław Miłosz to her parents: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.”

“A Living Remedy” leaves the reader feeling that Ms. Chung’s immediate family is finished, but only in a way that means whole and complete, even as it heals from loss.

Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist and teaching assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University.

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