Free Food for Millionaires: A Novel by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing, $9.99, 592 pages)
This is a fascinating novel by Min Jin Lee, but then it would have to be to pull a reader through its 560 pages. The telling of the story, though, has its faults which helps to explain the divergent reviews upon its initial release. One reviewer found it to be “extraordinary,” another found it to be the “best novel” he’d read in a long time, and another said it was “a pleasure” to read. But Kirkus Reviews decided that it was “fitfully entertaining but not extraordinary.” Well, perhaps this is a story that the reader simply loves or can do without…
Millionaires is set within the multi-generational Korean-American community that inhabits the Bronx and Manhattan boroughs of New York City. This is primarily the story of one Casey Han who graduates from Princeton and may serve as the alter ego of the author, a Yale and Georgetown Law graduate. Casey finds that her Ivy League degree fails to open the doors of success for her, and she knows and believes that she’s seen as a failure by her parents. She’s also unlucky in love which calls forth one of the issues with this initial novel from author Lee. There’s far more soap opera than needed, and it seems that every adult who occupies the story cheats on a loved one (spouse or partner) and then feels compelled to confess his/her infidelity. This seems just a bit over the top.
To her credit, Lee inhabits the tale with numerous fascinating characters, about equally divided between Korean-Americans and non-Koreans. The main character, Casey, works on Wall Street – underemployed for her level of education – and comes into contact with Type A Caucasians and super-ambitious Korean-Americans. One would think, however, that in the real business world some of the Asians in the city would happen to be Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc.
Then there’s the conflict and tension that the author seems to feel about her own people. There are many – probably too many – negative statements made about Koreans; some stereotypes, some quite troubling. Here’s a sampling:
“Everything with Koreans, Casey thought, was about avoiding shame…”
“Korean people like her mother and father didn’t talk about love, about feelings…”
“… Casey was an American, too – she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she’d never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.”
“… she came from a culture where good intentions and clear talk wouldn’t cover all wounds.”
“This is why I never work with Koreans. They are so goddam stuck. You must choose yourself over the group.”
There’s also an instance where Casey thinks about Korean weddings and the “five hundred uninvited guests” who show up at them. Ah, well, maybe Lee felt the need to include some material to get the novel some attention. In this respect, it probably worked.
The story is actually much more about the conflict between the “old country” family members, and the younger “new country” and “American” relatives who view the world very differently. In this respect, it could have been set among any multi-generational ethnic group. In the end, both love and forgiveness – massive doses of each – are required to get past the intra-family differences that exist.
The author is talented and I look forward to her next work, which hopefully will be less narrow in scope. Free Food for Millionaires… flawed… recommended… but just barely.
This book was purchased by the reviewer.
Note: Thank you to Daniel D. Holt, co-author of Korean At A Glance: Second Edition, for providing technical assistance on this review.