Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"Free Food For Millionaires" - Min Jin Lee

Min Jin Lee's first book is quite the tour de force. For starters its length is staggering at 560 pages but it is also ambitious in the number of characters it follows during a period of more or less five years.

The protagonist is Casey Han, daughter of korean immigrants in the United States. Just out of Princeton where she studied economy, we first meet her during a stressful family dinner after she has just decided to defer her entry into Columbia Law School for a year.

Her parents are very conservative and her father in particular expects nothing short of complete devotion and obedience of the two sisters (Casey's sister Tina is going to Medical School). The dinner ends in a violent confrontation where Joseph Han strikes his daughter and tells her to leave her home permanently. Casey goes home to find her white boyfriend engaging in a threesome.

These are the events that set "Free Food For Millionaires" in motion. Casey is an extremely likable character: though she has gone to Princeton and engaged in most of the social activities the university threw her way (vacations in the Hamptons, eating clubs, golf) she doesn't consider herself an Ivy leaguer. The fact is, her parents work in a dry-cleaners (the family has never had a vacation) and live in Queens, and even though she is loan-free because of a scholarship she can hardly indulge in the sort of carefree spending that seems to go with the territory. Not for Casey the benefit of a masters degree in Italy (in which her best friend Virginia is about to embark), or the gift of a Manhattan apartment bestowed by her father (such as her childhood friend Ella receives). She doesn't even have the financial support of being admitted into a banking program like her boyfriend.

She has no job, ambivalent feelings toward a career in either finance or law, and her love of well tailored and expensive clothes and hats, quickly throws her into a bottomless pit of credit-card debt. Whenever she can, she slips off into a rooftop or terrace and smokes about five cigarettes in a row.

Following Casey in her after school years, as she grows estranged from her parents and searches for meaning, money and love, would have been more than enough. Yet Lee, influenced by an admiration of XIX century novels (as she states in this interview), gives voice to the stories of many other secondary characters. And this is where the book lost its stamina, and freshness as far as I was concerned.

It is arguable that Casey's goody-two shoes friend Ella, deserves her own story, as does her korean-gone-mogul boss, Sabine, her sister Tina, her mother Leah, Virginia or her co-workers - even Ella's husband Ted gets his two cents - but I constantly felt as if Casey's voice was being robbed of depth in order to accommodate this vast cast of supporting actors. And more often than not, their respective episodes felt forced and stilted.

At the beginning of part II I was surprised and upset when I was told two years had passed - what had Casey been doing and thinking those 24 months?

And there was little final resolution for many of the characters. Tina, the younger sister, I felt was especially badly treated by Lee's choice of narrative: just as she shows some sign of being more than the dutiful daughter we abandon her broke, taking an indefinite break from med school in order to take care of her first-born. Casey's mother is also left at an impasse after having a miscarriage, being made pregnant by her choir director.

Even Casey's finale is left vague: she probably won't go to business school, or will she? Is getting back with the boyfriend she so carelessly cheated on?

There were great moments in "Free Food For Millionaires" and I wouldn't necessarily say no to another book by Lee. But after more than 500 pages I was left with the feeling that the real story was about to begin just as the book ended.

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