It’s bittersweet to crack open The Caregiver, Samuel Park’s long-awaited follow-up to his luminous, romantic epic set in Korea, This Burns My Heart (2011). Park died of stomach cancer in 2017, so his second full-length novel is also his last. It’s a tender mother-daughter story that alternates between 1980s Brazil and present-day Los Angeles, two places that Park—who was born in Brazil and lived in Los Angeles for years—knew well.
Mara Alencar left her native Brazil in the 1980s at age 16, fleeing that country’s turmoil. Ten years later, she’s living in Los Angeles in a tiny apartment with two other Brazilian expats and drifting through her days as a caregiver to a cancer-stricken woman in Bel Air. A wealthy 40-something, the divorced and childless Kathryn calls Mara her adopted daughter and jokes about leaving her house to Mara when she dies. Despite this professed affection, Kathryn knows little about the woman who sees to her comfort on a daily basis.
Mara likes it that way. She’s trying to forget her past—and her brave and impetuous mother, Ana, who spurred Mara’s escape to the U.S. thanks to her connections with revolutionaries. Although Mara hasn’t seen or spoken to her mother since leaving Brazil, Ana haunts everything Mara does and every choice she makes.
As chapters alternate between Mara’s past in Brazil and her present-day life in California, Park explores what it means to care for someone and the beauty of human resilience and survival. Though the title most obviously refers to Mara, it’s also a callback to Ana, a flawed woman full of fierce affection for her daughter. “I would be loved again and again,” thinks Mara, “and it was because she taught me how.”