Atlas Obscura Book Club: The Island of Sea Women, Discussion 1


Welcome to the first discussion of the Atlas Obscura Book Club Volume 2!

Today’s thread will be our first time talking about The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See. We’ll be looking at roughly the first third of the book (to page 100, or up to the chapter “When Thoughts Turn to Weddings”), and sharing our final thoughts and feelings.

(Image: Earth Observatory/Public Domain)

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And with that, let’s talk about the terrific and tragic The Island of Sea Women. For this first discussion, we’ll be focusing on the events of the first hundred pages or so, so if you’ve finished the book, lite spoilers only, please.

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unlisted #2

General thoughts and observations? The book begins with a fair amount of tragedy. Which part did you find the most affecting?


In the very first chapter we get to see Young-sook staring back at the tourists gawking at her work. It’s both a little sad and almost a little funny, but it’s also a fairly common occurrence in heavily touristed places. Have you ever had the experience of being not the tourist, but the toured?


Young-sook and Mi-ja use charcoal rubbings to mark important moments in their childhood relationship. What rituals do you use to memorialize the moments of your life?


I enjoyed the part where Young-sook remembers Mi-ja describing the foods of the city, and not believing that they could be real. What food did you hear about and not think could be real until you tried it?

listed #7

Falling in love. In many ways, it is a choice; you open your heart to the possibility of loving someone and being hurt. A true friendship has the hallmarks of being deeply affected by time and circumstances that strengthen it or make it wither away. You can never have one without opening up in all your vulnerabilities and the slightest misunderstanding can render it moot. True love, in essence, is really true friendship. When they say that it’s what holds a marriage together, it’s really about that series of choices: to trust, to fight through misunderstandings, to continually choose to love.


I think I try to be as much of a chameleon as possible wherever I go. I hate to stand out, to appear to be gawking. I think I avoid that kind of tourism, in general, unless it’s explicitly encouraged by the people. A great example is seeing the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans on Super Sunday. It’s definitely an event intended to show off to outsiders. But it’s also an event that an outsider can’t really participate in. I do my best to view the proceedings, to be polite and respectful, and to participate when polite to do so. For example, if an “Indian” stops to let you take their picture. You tell them they’re pretty, take your picture, and go on your way. But you won’t find me jumping in front of the parade, dropping to one knee, angling my DSLR at the families and friends trying to enjoy their day.


Oof, that’s beautifully said. Even from the first chapter, when Young-sook is presented with that picture, you can tell that there is going to be a huge falling out in their friendship, and their love for one another, I couldn’t help but get a bit sad about all of the relationships that I’ve let go over the years.

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Yeah, whenever I’m in a situation where I’m watching a demonstration like that I tend to feel pretty uncomfortable, but try to be respectful without being patronizing. It’s a difficult balance.

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Oh, wow, I had no idea what was going to happen. I was clueless about why she might have that reaction, but it was also enough to draw me in and wonder what was going on.

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When I used to perform in musical theatre.
I knew it could never be my life; I didn’t have the passion to starve for it - being the practical, pragmatic person I can be.

Also, when I was living in China. I thought that the heritage from my spear side made me look Chinese enough so it always caught me by surprise when my friend would point out when we were being followed by the curious because I was considered a foreigner.


Oh! That was my instant read. It felt like when someone tags you on social in some old, embarrassing photo from a previous phase in your life.

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This question reminded me of this comic: xkcd: Turkish Delight


That she tries to avoid the American family by escaping points to a wound that has festered and never completely healed - it’s a great lure to keep you reading.

I feel the same way about relationships that I’ve let go but have mattered a lot to me at different points in my life. You must think of it in terms of a broken vase - you can fix it so that the cracks won’t be obvious but you’ll still know where each and every one of those cracks are. Others may not see them but you’ll know where they started and ended. It doesn’t mean the vase, or our lives, become less beautiful but it is indubitably marked.


People who jump in the way to take their perfect Instagrammable shots are the worst. Good for you to try being unobtrusive and it’s not on you if it’s explicitly encouraged anyway.

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Some good writing always will.

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The thing that most struck me about the story, was the importance of blame and guilt. People who were merely present at a tragedy would always carry a whiff of blame. It didn’t matter what really happened, what mattered was association. This seems to be at the heart of many aspects of the story.

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Yeah, I think this felt especially true with the death of Young-sook’s mother. The guilt she felt was a gut punch.