- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 10, 2007

If all stories were as fascinating as their main characters, Casey Han would make “Free Food For Millionaires” downright entrancing. She stands defiantly at the heart of Min Jin Lee’s first novel, going out of her way to turn good situations bad.

By the tale’s outset she’s already graduated from Princeton, but she’s living at home with her Korean immigrant parents (the docile Leah and the quiet, sometimes violent Joseph) and younger sister (Tina). In one of the fits of arrogance the ultra-educated are prone to, she’d only applied to one investment banking program before school let out, and she didn’t get in. She’s planning to sell hats at a department store until she can find a job that utilizes her education.

Joseph and Leah have worked themselves ragged over the years managing a dry-cleaning shop, and Joseph in particular finds it annoying to house a college graduate who doesn’t seem to take finding work seriously. Soon tempers (and Joseph’s fists) get out of control, and Casey finds herself with an Ivy League degree, an injured face, no job and no place to stay.

She takes her things, says goodbye to Tina and heads out to stay with Jay, the white boyfriend she’s never told her parents about. In an absurd coincidence, this is the very night that two Louisiana State University sorority girls approached Jay in a bar after work and, on a dare, offered him a threesome point-blank. To make the situation all the more insulting and unlikely (why not?), Casey has her own key, lets herself in and inadvertently catches the happy couple-plus-one in the middle of things.

From there she finds an expensive hotel and charges the stay to her new credit card. The next morning she shops for “work clothes” at an upscale shop. The total comes to $4,300 for a pair of slacks, a skirt, a shirt, a suit and a jacket. She decides to put the clothes on hold and, if she can restrain herself, not come back to buy them.

Just then she runs into Ella, a rich acquaintance from her parents’ church. Not wanting to admit her streak of bad luck, Casey maxes out her card buying the clothes. Ella pries, though, and that night Casey begins living with Ella and Ted Kim, Ella’s fiancee. Ted gets Casey a sales assistant job with his banking firm. After a few twists, Casey is living on her own and selling hats again on weekends.

Ms. Lee launches into an intricate but very followable series of subplots that weaves between Casey’s humble Queens origins and the upscale world of New York finance, a subway ride and a world away. Readers meet Delia, the office tramp who takes Ted from Ella soon after they marry.They meet David, a nice coworker of Ella’s who consoles her.

Then there’s Sabine, who owns the store Casey sells hats at and mentors the girl. Chul, Tina’s fiancee. Hugh Underwood, a seductive broker who helps Casey with her career. Unu, Ella’s cousin and eventually Casey’s gambling-addicted boyfriend. Charles, who conducts Leah’s church choir. Ms. Lee fully develops each of these characters, plunging into immigrant and native societies without relying too much on stereotypes.

There’s a lot of value in “Free Food.” It’s loaded with worthwhile social observations, albeit occasionally delivered through smash-you-over-the-head statements. (“As a hardworking middle-class person, she found the idea of justice comforted her,” for example.)

Through Casey it depicts a cohort of poor students at top-tier colleges who can’t help but feel jealous of their rich classmates — no matter how well off human beings are, they often find time to resent the fact that someone, somewhere had an easier life than they did. Most take classes with Marxist sociology professors instead of spending thousands of dollars they don’t have to keep up, but Ms. Lee’s portrait of envy rings very true.

It is also a story of immigration and assimilation. There’s a general sense that immigrants should give up part of their culture to become Americans — but for Casey that means going on birth control at 15 without her parents’ knowledge, borrowing money from her sister for an abortion a few years later and flitting directionlessly across the post-graduation career landscape. She’s often too proud and meritocratic to use contacts, ethnic or alumni, to get jobs.

In the immigration debate (coming to a head currently), too few figures on both sides ask the question, “If they assimilate, which American practices will they take up?”

And when Leah and Joseph try to preserve their culture, it’s the American left they find themselves at odds with. They are familiar with Koreans, and they have roots and support in the Korean community, so they’d prefer their daughters married Koreans.

Preserving a culture by marrying within it is quite common throughout the world. The propriety of imposing such a mandate on one’s child aside, it’s hard to begrudge someone a desire for children and grandchildren to pass a single set of traditions down to.

Given America’s history, though, this preference takes on sinister overtones here. Casey remembers Jay calling her refusal to introduce him to her parents “a form of collusion with their racism.” Even young Korean men aren’t crazy about interracial dating: Asian women are more likely to marry white than Asian men are, so Asian men fall short in partners.

Ted sneers at a “tandard-issue white guy who dates Asian girls. Everything pale, generic looking. Not much personality there.” Casey wants to respond, but doesn’t, that she never dated Korean men because Korean men never asked her out. “Should I have just stayed home?” she feels like saying, not unreasonably. The irony, of course, is that Ted ends up in an affair with the white Delia.

Ted wanders as Jay did, and there’s a pattern here: Infidelity of some sort disrupts virtually every relationship in “Free Food.” Men, utter dogs to the core, typically cause the problems, raping, cheating, getting caught and giving their pregnant wives herpes.

(The herpes case is an interesting one — the man brings it to his wife from somewhere, but since women are saints, it turns out that the woman he admits sleeping with doesn’t have it. Where did it come from? Ms. Lee never tells us. Probably from a man somehow.)

In this light, Casey’s thorough inability to pull her life together actually provides some gender balance.

A deeper issue, though, is the “what was that all about?” ending. Suffice it to say that after more than 500 pages, Ms. Lee’s readers deserve more than she supplies. They’ve spent hours going through several years of Casey’s life, and there’s no real turning point to give them closure.

“Free Food for Millionaires” proves an astounding, remarkably readable debut from a talented writer. Ms. Lee draws race, culture, class and young adulthood together into a coherent narrative. We can almost, but not quite, forgive her for ending it so unsatisfyingly.

Robert VerBruggen (rverbruggen@washingtontimes.com) is Assistant Book Editor.

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