One of our recommended books for 2019 is Miracle Creek by Angie Kim

MIRACLE CREEK

A Novel


My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn’t even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first . . .

In rural Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic “dives” with the hopes of curing issues like autism or infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos’ small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients,

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My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie. He probably didn’t even consider it a lie, and neither did I, at first . . .

In rural Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device known as the Miracle Submarine—a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic “dives” with the hopes of curing issues like autism or infertility. But when the Miracle Submarine mysteriously explodes, killing two people, a dramatic murder trial upends the Yoos’ small community.

Who or what caused the explosion? Was it the mother of one of the patients, who claimed to be sick that day but was smoking down by the creek? Or was it Young and Pak themselves, hoping to cash in on a big insurance payment and send their daughter to college? The ensuing trial uncovers unimaginable secrets from that night—trysts in the woods, mysterious notes, child-abuse charges—as well as tense rivalries and alliances among a group of people driven to extraordinary degrees of desperation and sacrifice.

Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek is a thoroughly contemporary take on the courtroom drama, drawing on the author’s own life as a Korean immigrant, former trial lawyer, and mother of a real-life “submarine” patient. Both a compelling page-turner and an excavation of identity and the desire for connection, Miracle Creek is a brilliant, empathetic debut from an exciting new voice.

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  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Hardcover
  • April 2019
  • 368 Pages
  • 9780374156022

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$27.00

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About Angie Kim

Angie Kim is the author of Miracle Creek, credit Tim Coburn photographyAngie Kim moved as a preteen from Seoul, South Korea, to the suburbs of Baltimore. She attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School, where she was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, then practiced as a trial lawyer at Williams & Connolly. Her stories have won the Glamour Essay Contest and the Wabash Prize for Fiction, and appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, Salon, Slate, The Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Asian American Literary Review, and PANK. Kim lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three sons.

Praise

A Barnes and Noble Bestseller
An IndieNext Pick
An April 2019 LibraryReads Selection
An April 2019 Book of the Month Club Selection
An Amazon Editors’ Pick
A Best New Book at People Magazine

A Most Anticipated Book of 2019: BuzzFeed, AppleBooks, Refinery29, CrimeReads, Electric Literature, Nylon, The Millions, BookRiot and more; named one of 10 Best Books to Read in Spring 2019 in The Saturday Evening Post; one of Southern Living‘s Best Books of Spring 2019

“A deeply moving story about parents and the lengths they will go for their children . . . readers will be riveted by the book’s genre-bending structure and superb pace. Miracle Creek is a stunning debut about parents, children and the unwavering hope of a better life, even when all hope seems lost.”Jung Yun, The Washington Post

“Beautifully written . . . unflinchingly honest and thought-provoking . . . Kim deftly explores the lies that people tell themselves, the temptation of hope, and the struggles of the immigrant experience through the shifting lens of intensely believable characters.” —Yangsze Choo, Entertainment Weekly

“Engrossing . . . Miracle Creek turns a courtroom murder trial into a page-turning exploration of parenting, experimental therapies, and the emotional toil of immigration.”Elle

“[An] elegant edge-of-your seat debut.” People Magazine

Miracle Creek is already one of the page-turners of the summer.”Refinery29

“This clever, emotional courtroom drama pushes the boundaries of the whodunit genre. Angie Kim has created a narrative arc in her debut novel, Miracle Creek, that is unique in the annals of mystery . . . [Kim] brings more nuance to the [trial] proceedings than the 15 minutes allotted in a typical ‘Law and Order’ episode.”Drew Gallagher, Washington Independent Review of Books

“Clear your calendars, put your phones on airplane mode, and get ready to hear the sounds of your heartstrings being plucked! This stunning debut is a family drama, courtroom thriller, and a mystery, all of which add up to one of the most incredible novels of 2019 . . . My two-word review: Jaw. Dropping. I was absolutely floored by this book! Reading it felt like opening a present I had been hiding in my heart.” Liberty Hardy, Book of the Month Club

“A rigorous character study, touching on themes of immigration and motherhood.”Entertainment Weekly

“Angie Kim’s intricately-plotted courtroom thriller isn’t a conventional whodunit where the bad guy is eventually unmasked and the reader closes the book with righteous satisfaction. Kim has weaved a more complicated web than that, one that ensnares characters many readers will empathize with–well-meaning but flawed, doing foolish things for noble reasons—and that only adds to the suspense.”Erin Kodicek, Amazon Book Review

“With so many complications and loose ends, one of the miracles of the novel is that the author ties it all together and arrives at a deeply satisfying—though not easy or sentimental—ending. Intricate plotting and courtroom theatrics, combined with moving insight into parenting special needs children and the psychology of immigrants, make this book both a learning experience and a page-turner. Should be huge.” —Kirkus (starred review)

“Like a Law & Order episode tossed into an immigrant’s bildungsroman, Miracle Creek has the heart of a Celeste Ng novel and the pacing of a thriller.” —Hillary Kelly, Vulture

“This stunning debut by Angie Kim is both an utterly engrossing, nail-biter of a courtroom drama and a sensitive, incisive look into the experiences of immigrant families in America.” —Nylon

“Kim effectively uses her background as a trial lawyer, skillfully crafting her narrative by interweaving the stories of her characters, each of whom speak for themselves as the story progresses toward a surprise ending. With touches of mystery, legal thriller, and character-driven storytelling, where nothing is ever quite as it seems, Kim’s promising debut will certainly have readers looking forward to her next offering.” Library Journal (starred review)

“[A] masterpiece of grief, hope, and recrimination . . . A complex novel of parenting, prejudice, and putting blame where blame’s due, this one is not to be missed.” —Crime Reads

[Miracle Creek] has everything you’re looking for in a book.” —Reading Women Podcast

“A stand-out, twisty debut . . . Kim, a former lawyer, clearly knows her stuff . . . a masterfully plotted novel about the joys and pains of motherhood, the trick mirror nature of truth, and the unforgiving nature of justice.”Publishers Weekly

“Powerful courtroom scenes invite comparisons to Scott Turow, but Kim’s nuanced exploration of guilt, resentment, maternal love, and multifaceted justice may have stronger appeal for readers.” —Booklist

“I know this story but have never seen it in a novel—the struggles of the Korean immigrant entrepreneur in America, with a technology that seems like magic, who can go from hero to villain in an instant, now at the center of what is possibly a murder—a bright seam of crisis, mystery, and love emerges in these pages. Kim has written a bold debut novel about science and immigration and the hopes and fears each engenders—unforgettable and true.”Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night

Miracle Creek is a marvel, a taut courtroom thriller that ultimately tells the most human story imaginable, a story of good intentions and reckless passions. Compelling, generous, at once empathetic and unsparing. I am wrecked, I am heartened and hopeful, which means, in short, that Miracle Creek is pretty much the perfect novel for these chaotic times in which we live.”Laura Lippman, author of Sunburn

Miracle Creek grabbed me hard right from the start. This is a terrific courtroom thriller, a sly whodunit that’s beautifully written and also full of heart.”Scott Turow, author of Testimony

Miracle Creek is an engrossing puzzle-box of a book: a twisty courtroom drama that also manages to be emotionally astute, culturally perceptive, and deeply empathetic. Angie Kim tackles hot-button subjects with a delicate touch, proving herself a master of both portraiture and storytelling. I loved this novel.”Janelle Brown, author of the New York Times bestseller Watch Me Disappear

Discussion Questions

1. In the opening chapter of Miracle Creek, Young Yoo narrates her version of events on the evening of the HBOT explosion. What is the effect of this first-person narrative compared with the rest of the book, which is written in the third person? What are the details in Young’s story that create suspense? What does Young know that hints at the truth about what happened? What information is she missing?

2. Abe Patterley, the prosecuting attorney, calls Dr. Matt Thompson as his first witness against Elizabeth Ward. What dual purpose does Matt’s testimony serve? What does it reveal about Matt— what he believes about the effectiveness of HBOT and how he came to be undergoing treatments, as well as his personal life? What is Matt afraid of divulging in court?

3. What are some of the differences between American and Korean culture that the book explores? How are these experienced by Matt and Janine? By the Yoo family? How are the Korean characters stereotyped by others? How do they defy stereotype?

4. As the trial proceeds, the defense and prosecuting attorneys attempt to re-create the time line leading to the explosion. What are some of the lies and false assumptions contained in the testimony of witnesses and experts? What is the circumstantial evidence that led to Elizabeth’s arrest? How does each of the lawyers try to influence the jury?

5. Autism is diagnosed on a spectrum with a wide variation in symptoms, as evidenced by TJ Kozlowski and Henry Ward. In Miracle Creek, the mothers of autistic children are portrayed as having a wide range of beliefs about treatments for their children. What do Kitt, Elizabeth, and Ruth Weiss each believe about treatments? What are the circumstances of Kitt’s and Elizabeth’s lives that influence their behavior?

6. On the day of the explosion, as well as during the trial, many of the characters make decisions that ultimately change the course of their lives. What are some of these decisions? How might things have turned out differently if, for example, Matt hadn’t bought cigarettes, or Janine hadn’t gone to see Mary?

7. Pak Young is described as a “wild goose father,” a man who remains in Korea to work while his wife and children move abroad for better education. Pak will make any sacrifice for Mary. Who are the other fathers in the story and what are their relationships with their wives and children? What is the picture of fatherhood that emerges?

8. What is the reality of being the mother of a special needs child? How do Elizabeth, Teresa, and Kitt each cope with the daily demands of caregiving? Where do they find support? What are their relationships with each other? Elizabeth, in particular, devotes herself to Henry. What is her motivation for constantly seeking new therapies, some of which are painful and possibly harmful? How does Kitt feel about Elizabeth’s treatment of Henry? What does Elizabeth realize as she watches the video of Henry? Why does she take the drastic action she takes at the end of the novel?

9. Several small and seemingly insignificant objects are important to the development of the book’s characters and the unfolding of the plot—for example, Janine’s wok and the balloons. What are some of the others and the purposes they serve?

10. Each of the main characters feels guilty about something he or she did or failed to do. Why is Young relieved on the first day of the trial when the judge announces, “Docket number 49621, Commonwealth of Virginia versus Elizabeth Ward”? What are Pak and Young, Matt and Janine, hiding from Abe Patterley? At the book’s conclusion, is there anyone who can be described as completely innocent? Did any good come of the tragedy?

11. What brought Young and Pak from Seoul to Baltimore and, ultimately, to Miracle Creek? What is Young’s first impression of the United States and its citizens? How were the Yoo family’s expectations of America different from the realities? How were Young, Pak, and Mary different as individuals and as a family before they immigrated?

12. As Day Three of the trial ends, Young and Matt are each determined to learn the truth about what their spouses have been hiding. What has Young discovered that causes her to doubt Pak? Why does Pak continue to lie to her? What has Matt discovered about Janine? What lies do Matt and Janine persist in telling each other?

13. On Day Four of the trial, Abe introduces as evidence “a blow-up of notepad paper, phrases scrawled everywhere,” taken from Elizabeth’s house after the explosion. In particular, there are five phrases on the page, highlighted in yellow: I can’t do this anymore; I need my life back; It needs to end TODAY!!; Henry = victim? How?; and NO MORE HBOT, which has been circled several times. What was Elizabeth’s frame of mind when she wrote these notes to herself? What is the truth about the last day of Henry’s life?

14. Shannon and Abe appear to be skillful and highly ethical attorneys. In order to do their jobs, they have no choice but to believe their witnesses as they build their cases. Do either of them doubt any of the information they’ve been given? What tactics do each of them use to influence the jury? Which one of them seems closer to winning the case when Elizabeth’s disappearance puts an end to the trial?

15. What is the chain of events that turns Mary’s teenaged feelings of anger and humiliation into the actions she takes on the night of the explosion? How does Pak rationalize his plan for saving her? Should Matt and Janine have been held accountable for how they treated her?

16. Were you surprised to discover the identity of the person who set the fire? Do you view what that person did as murder? Was that person’s sentence fair? How about the sentences of the others?

Excerpt

She felt like a bride walking into the courtroom.

Certainly, her wedding was the last time—the only time—that a roomful of people had fallen silent and turned to stare as she entered. If it weren’t for the variety in hair color and the snippets of whispers in English as she walked down the aisle—“Look, the owners,” “The daughter was in a coma for months, poor thing,” “He’s paralyzed, so awful”—she might have thought she was still in Korea.

The small courtroom even looked like an old church, with creaky wooden pews on both sides of the aisle. She kept her head down, just as she had at her wedding twenty years ago; she wasn’t usually the focus of attention, and it felt wrong. Modesty, blending in, invisibility: those were the virtues of wives, not notoriety and gaudiness. Wasn’t that why brides wore veils—to protect them from stares, to mute the redness of their cheeks? She glanced to the sides. On the right, behind the prosecution, she glimpsed familiar faces, those of their patients’ families.

The patients had all gathered together only once: last July, at the orientation outside the barn. Her husband had opened the doors to show the freshly painted blue chamber. “This,” Pak said, looking proud, “is Miracle Submarine. Pure oxygen. Deep pressure. Healing. Together.” Everyone clapped. Mothers cried. And now, here were the same people, somber, the hope of miracle gone from their faces, replaced by the curiosity of people reaching for tabloids in supermarket lines. That and pity—for her or themselves, she didn’t know. She’d expected anger, but they smiled as she walked by, and she had to remind herself that she was a victim here. She was not the defendant, not the one they blamed for the explosion that killed two patients. She told herself what Pak told her every day—their absence from the barn that night didn’t cause the fire, and he couldn’t have prevented the explosion even if he’d stayed with the patients—and tried to smile back. Their support was a good thing. She knew that. But it felt undeserved, wrong, like a prize won by cheating, and instead of buoying her, it weighed her down with worry that God would see and correct the injustice, make her pay for her lies some other way.

When Young reached the wooden railing, she fought her impulse to hop across and sit at the defense table. She sat with her family behind the prosecutor, next to Matt and Teresa, two of the people trapped in Miracle Submarine that night. She hadn’t seen them in a long time, not since the hospital. But no one said hi. They all looked down. They were the victims.

* * *

THE COURTHOUSE WAS in Pineburg, the town next to Miracle Creek. It was strange, the names—the opposite of what you’d expect. Miracle Creek didn’t look like a place where miracles took place, unless you counted the miracle of people living there for years without going insane from boredom. The “Miracle” name and its marketing possibilities (plus cheap land) had drawn them there despite there being no other Asians—no immigrants at all, probably. It was only an hour from Washington, D.C., an easy drive from dense concentrations of modernity such as Dulles Airport, but it had the isolated feel of a village hours from civilization, an entirely different world. Dirt trails instead of concrete sidewalks. Cows rather than cars. Decrepit wooden barns, not steel-and-glass high-rises. Like stepping into a grainy black-and-white film. It had that feel of being used and discarded; the first time Young saw it, she had an impulse to find every bit of trash in her pockets and throw it as far as she could.

Pineburg, despite its plain name and proximity to Miracle Creek, was charming, its narrow cobblestone streets lined with chalet-style shops, each painted a different bright color. Looking at Main Street’s row of shops reminded Young of her favorite market in Seoul, its legendary produce row—spinach green, pepper red, beet purple, persimmon orange. From its description, she would’ve thought it garish, but it was the opposite—as if putting the brash colors together subdued each one, so the overall feel was elegant and lovely.

The courthouse was at the base of a knoll, flanked by grapevines planted in straight lines up the hill. The geometric precision provided a measured calm, and it seemed fitting that a building of justice would stand amid the ordered rows of vines.

That morning, gazing at the courthouse, its tall white columns, Young had thought how this was the closest she’d been to the America she’d expected. In Korea, after Pak decided she should move to Baltimore with Mary, she’d gone to bookstores and looked through pictures of America—the Capitol, Manhattan skyscrapers, Inner Harbor. In her five years in America, she hadn’t seen any of those sights. For the first four years, she’d worked in a grocery store two miles from Inner Harbor, but in a neighborhood people called the “ghetto,” houses boarded up and broken bottles everywhere. A tiny vault of bulletproof glass: that had been America for her.

It was funny how desperate she’d been to escape that gritty world, and yet she missed it now. Miracle Creek was insular, with longtime residents (going back generations, they said). She thought they might be slow to warm, so she focused on befriending one family nearby who’d seemed especially nice. But over time, she realized: they weren’t nice; they were politely unfriendly. Young knew the type. Her own mother had belonged to this breed of people who used manners to cover up unfriendliness the way people used perfume to cover up body odor—the worse it was, the more they used. Their stiff hyperpoliteness—the wife’s perpetual closed-lip smile, the husband’s ma’am at the beginning or end of every sentence—kept Young at a distance and reinforced her status as a stranger. Although her most frequent customers in Baltimore had been cantankerous, cursing and complaining about everything from the prices being too high to the sodas too warm and deli meats too thin, there was an honesty to their rudeness, a comfortable intimacy to their yelling. Like bickering siblings. Nothing to cover up.

After Pak joined them in America last year, they’d looked for housing in Annandale, the D.C. area’s Koreatown—a manageable drive from Miracle Creek. The fire had stopped all that, and they were still in their “temporary” housing. A crumbling shack in a crumbling town far from anything pictured in the books. To this day, the fanciest place Young had been in America was the hospital where Pak and Mary had lain for months after the explosion.

* * *

THE COURTROOM WAS LOUD. Not the people—the victims, lawyers, journalists, and who knew who else—but the two old-fashioned window-unit air conditioners on opposite sides behind the judge. They sputtered like lawn mowers when they switched on and off, which, because they weren’t synchronized, happened at different times—one, then the other, then back again, like some strange mechanical beasts’ mating calls. When the units ran, they rattled and hummed, each at a slightly different pitch, making Young’s eardrums itch. She wanted to stick her pinkie deep inside her ear into her brain and scratch.

The lobby plaque said the courthouse was a 250-year-old historical landmark and asked for donations to the Pineburg Courthouse Preservation Society. Young had shaken her head at the thought of this society, an entire group whose sole purpose was to prevent this building from becoming modern. Americans were so proud of things being a few hundred years old, as if things being old were a value in and of itself. (Of course, this philosophy did not extend to people.) They didn’t seem to realize that the world valued America precisely because it was not old, but modern and new. Koreans were the opposite. In Seoul, there would be a Modernization Society dedicated to replacing this courthouse’s “antique” hardwood floors and pine tables with marble and sleek steel.

“All rise. Skyline County Criminal Court now in session, the Honorable Frederick Carleton III presiding,” the bailiff said, and everyone stood. Except Pak. His hands clenched his wheelchair’s armrests, the green veins on his hands and wrists popping up as if willing his arms to support his body’s weight. Young started to help, but she stopped herself, knowing that needing help for something basic like standing would be worse for him than not standing at all. Pak cared so much about appearances, conforming to rules and expectations—the quintessentially Korean things she’d strangely never cared about (because her family’s wealth afforded her the luxury of being immune to them, Pak would say). Still, she understood his frustration, being the lone sitting figure in this towering crowd. It made him vulnerable, like a child, and she had to fight the urge to cloak his body with her arms and hide his shame.

“The court will now come to order. Docket number 49621, Commonwealth of Virginia versus Elizabeth Ward,” the judge said, and banged the gavel. As if by plan, both air conditioners were off, and the sound of wood striking wood reverberated off the slanted ceilings and lingered in the silence.

It was official: Elizabeth was the defendant. Young felt a tingle inside her chest, like some dormant cell of relief and hope had burst and was spreading sparks of electricity throughout her body, zapping away the fear that had hijacked her life. Even though almost a year had passed since Pak was cleared and Elizabeth arrested, Young hadn’t quite believed it, had wondered if this was a trick, and if today, as the trial started, they’d announce her and Pak as the real targets. But now the waiting was over, and after several days of evidence—“overwhelming evidence,” the prosecutor said—Elizabeth would be found guilty, and they’d get their insurance money and rebuild their lives. No more living in stasis.

The jurors filed in. Young gazed at them, these people—all twelve, seven men and five women—who believed in capital punishment and swore they were willing to vote for death by lethal injection. Young had learned this last week. The prosecutor had been in a particularly good mood, and when she asked why, he’d explained that the potential jurors most likely to be sympathetic to Elizabeth had been dismissed because they were anti-death-penalty.

“Death penalty? Like hanging?” she’d said.

Her alarm and revulsion must have shown, because Abe stopped smiling. “No, by injection, drugs in an IV. It’s painless.”

He’d explained that Elizabeth wouldn’t necessarily get death, it was just a possibility, but still, she’d dreaded seeing Elizabeth here, the terror that would surely be on her face, confronting the people with the power to end her life.

Now, Young forced herself to look at Elizabeth, at the defense table. She looked like a lawyer herself, her blond hair twisted into a bun, dark green suit, pearls, pumps. Young had almost looked past her, she looked so different from before—messy ponytail, wrinkled sweats, unmatched socks.

It was ironic—of all the parents of their patients, Elizabeth had been the most disheveled, and yet she’d had by far the most manageable child. Henry, her only child, had been a well-mannered boy who, unlike many other patients, could walk, talk, was toilet-trained, and didn’t have tantrums. During orientation, when the mother of twins with autism and epilepsy asked Elizabeth, “Sorry, but what’s Henry here for? He seems so normal,” she’d frowned as if offended. She recited a list—OCD, ADHD, sensory and autism spectrum disorders, anxiety—then said how hard it was, spending all her days researching experimental treatments. She seemed to have no clue how she sounded complaining while surrounded by kids with wheelchairs and feeding tubes.

Judge Carleton asked Elizabeth to stand. She expected Elizabeth to cry as he read the charges, or at least blush, her eyes down. But Elizabeth looked straight at the jury, her cheeks unflushed, eyes unblinking. She studied Elizabeth’s face, so empty of expression, wondering if she was numb, in shock. But instead of looking vacant, Elizabeth looked serene. Almost happy. Perhaps it was because she was so used to Elizabeth’s worried frowns that their absence made Elizabeth look contented.

Or perhaps the newspapers were right. Perhaps Elizabeth had been desperate to get rid of her son, and now that he was dead, she finally had a measure of peace. Perhaps she had been a monster all along.

Copyright © 2019 by Angela Suyeon Kim