"Free Food for Millionaires"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 22, 2007)
Min Jin Lee’s debut starts off like a classic fairy tale describing its protagonist Casey Han: "As a capable young woman, Casey Han felt compelled to choose respectability and success. But it was glamour and insight that she craved. A Korean immigrant who’d grown up in a dim, blue-collar neighborhood in Queens, she’d hoped for a bright, glittering life beyond the workhouse struggles of her parents who managed a Manhattan dry cleaner.”
It is this search for a the “bright, glittering life” that occupies much of Lee’s promising debut -- not just of Casey Han’s but of a whole number of related characters as they try to find their place in contemporary America. The book opens when Casey, a recent Princeton graduate (with a fetish for hats), has just moved home to figure out what she wants to do next in life. The stay at home doesn’t last long because she gets booted out by her father for what he considers, her insolent behavior. To add salt to her wounds, Casey heads to her boyfriend, Jay Currie’s apartment, only to find him cheating on her with two sorority girls.
As Casey then tries to make her way by doing odd jobs and shacking up with friends, we are introduced to a wide assortment of characters: Ella Shim, Casey’s childhood acquaintance, who is the epitome of the ideal immigrant child; her father Dr. Shim who is a physician in the city and Sabine Gottesman, a Korean implant who has achieved spectacular success in Manhattan by setting up her own retail business. Then there is Ted, Ella’s husband who is a stereotypical “alpha-male” Manhattan banker, and Unu, Ella’s cousin, who takes a romantic interest in Casey but slowly loses himself to gambling.
The most telling scenes in the book are ones in which the age-old parent-child generation gap is accentuated by the clash between Old World values and new. More striking than the clashes in values between the two generations sometimes, is the similarity of yet other ideals. The drive for material wealth, for example, festers not just in Casey Han and her peers, but also in her father, immigrant Joseph Han, who remembers his fellow church members, rich "boojahs," by the kind of property each owns: “To his right, sat Elder Koh who owned a 10,000 square foot deli behind Penn Station, employing 85 people to keep it going. To his left, Elder Kong owned seven commercial buildings in the Bronx and a shopping mall as well as a multilevel parking lot in Brooklyn.”
Casey’s overt consumption for her part leads her to imagine hell as a “room lined with laundry baskets overflowing with unpaid bills, message machines blaring with the voices of creditors, and she, its sole debtor.”
The Hans’ dependence on their church and faith to take them through troubling times is also something that Lee details although often fairly unconvincingly. The glimpses into the elder Hans’ cloistered life where church (frequented by fellow Korean immigrants) and work are everything, are beautiful but frustratingly, much too rare. At one point in the book Casey Han remembers that she and her sister Tina learned about American history from the classics but “modern life had been extrapolated from the small screen.” Sometimes the same rings true of Lee’s writing which degenerates into soap opera histrionics quite often.
All in all, Free Food For Millionaires is a promising debut and qualifies as a good beach read; the reader ends up rooting for young Casey Han. You can almost picture her as one of her television favorites, Mary Tyler Moore, playfully tossing her hat up in the air. It remains to be seen whether this fairy tale has a happy ending and if Casey too, ends up making “it after all.”
- Amazon readers rating: from 58 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Free Food for Millionaires at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Free Food For Millionaires (May 2007)
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- Official website for Min Jin Lee
- Living Read Girl review of Free Food for Millionaires
- USA Today review of Free Food for Millionaires
- The Missouri Review on Free Food for Millionaires
- BookReporter review of Free Food for Millionaires
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About the Author:
Min Jin Lee came to the United States in 1976 from Korea when she was seven years old. She grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, New York where her parents owned a wholesale jewelry store. She studied history at Yale College and law at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York before leaving to write full time. She has received the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. Her work has also been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and anthologized.
Lee lives in New York City with her husband and son.