Many novels have been written that explore the struggles of immigrant families who settle in Canada. It’s tempting to dismiss Ann Y. K. Choi’s debut novel, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, as just another such story. However, Choi’s ability to convey the unique spirit of her main character, Yu-Rhee or Mary, gives more significance to this tale of a South Korean family in Toronto in the 1980s. (The author herself came to Canada from South Korea in 1975.)
Throughout the novel, Mary battles with her mother, who keeps pushing Mary to succeed in school, the ultimate goals being a suitable future career and marriage to a Korean man. Mary sees her mother as leading a joyless existence as she works long hours in the family’s convenience store, then spends the rest of her time cooking for the family. “You can’t force me to be proud of my culture when you’ve given me nothing to be proud of,” Mary thinks.
Mary compares her family’s life with those of her friends who come from Pakistan and Italy, as well as second-generation Irish-Canadian families. She resents having to spend most of her time after school and on weekends working in the family’s store on Queen Street. She takes notes about the store’s customers, some of whom are prostitutes who ply their trade on the street, and dreams of a career as a poet.
The store is occasionally robbed, but Mary’s parents refuse to report these crimes because they don’t want their business to get a bad reputation. This desire to avoid bad publicity even extends to their decision not to reveal a pimp’s brutal attack on Mary. “My mother had told everybody I’d fallen down a flight of stairs — everybody but the police.” Mary can’t understand her mother’s refusal to acknowledge and talk about the attack.
Soon after the attack, Mary accompanies her mother to South Korea for her grandmother (or harmony’s) funeral. She discovers her grandmother also wrote poetry and learns about an aunt who disappeared after falling in love with an American soldier during the Korean War. Mary realizes she doesn’t know everything about her mother’s life.
While in Korea, she meets Joon-Ho, a neighbour boy who’s a few years older than her. They meet again when Joon-Ho comes to Canada to study engineering at the University of Toronto. He begins to help out at the store, and Mary decides to invite him to be her escort at her high school prom. However, she secretly wants to dance with her English teacher, Mr. Allen, who has encouraged her in her writing.
Choi effectively portrays the conflict that exists within many immigrant families as the children are forced to meet their parents’ high expectations for them. Mary must be a good student and also spend long hours working in the family’s store. Her parents want her to have a stable career and to marry to a Korean man but aren’t interested in what Mary wants and dreams about for herself.
After what at first seems to be a tragic accident, Mary learns more about her mother’s life, finding they shared the desire to write and explore the world. Mary realizes how much her mother was willing to sacrifice for her after uncovering receipts showing the monthly payments made over five years to buy the piano needed for Mary’s lessons, only to have her daughter quit the month before the final payment was made.
“Why hadn’t she said anything? Was it fair to get upset with me for quitting an instrument I hated? Was I being selfish? At my worst, I’d even wished her dead, although I’d had the comfort of naively believing that this could never happen,” Mary thinks.
Choi’s insights into the dynamics of a Korean family trying to adapt to life in Canada gives Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety authenticity, transforming the novel into something more than just another immigrant’s story.