Free Food for Millionaires is an excellent novel about a young, bright daughter of immigrant parents, Casey, a young woman full of potential, just graduated from Princeton in the mid-1990s. She has everything, or seems to, but can't quite realize the value in what she has. Min Jin Lee does an excellent job of conveying the New York City of the oversmart and overprivileged of that time. The title, "Free Food for Millionaires", is a reference to the free lunch provided periodically at an investment bank during that time. It's a perfect summary of the worlds Casey lives in--the striving world of her parents and the overprivileged one of her Princeton classmates, where peoples needs and wants are seemingly either denied and oversupplied. Happiness is never full--something is always missing. That lack of perfection makes this a strong novel. Lee does some interesting things with her characters--they and their stories take some unexpected turns. The novel ultimately lacks that special something to make it great--nothing compels the reader to keep reading. Casey herself, while her story is intersting, is a bit of a cold fish. The novel is intelligently written but Han jumps from one character's perspective to another, sometimes within the same paragraph, which makes the narrative a bit jumpy at times. Overall, though, this is an enjoyable read, full of flawed and human characters. This one would probably be a perfect book club read--it will give readers much to discuss.
Min Jin Lee's first novel is a wonder to sink intoæand be warned, once you start, it'll be hard to stop until you're done with this dense, richly told story of interweaving characters trying to find themselves in the supposed melting pot that is New York. Starting with fresh-out-of-college Casey Han, we meet the first of many who are struggling to figure out their place in the world. In Casey's case, this starts with her place in her family, and for talking back to her Korean father, she gets a slap across the face that catapults her out of the warmth of her family and into the world, learning the hard way about love, betrayal, jobs, Wall Street, and fidelity. The slapping scene seems to tilt around the room as Lee shows us each person's wishes as they unfold, making what could seem a horrific act one much more understandable. In Lee's hands, each character, no matter how small, gets to have their say, their slice of life, their point of view explained.
It's to Lee's credit that she, as the storyteller, doesn't judge, but lets the reader draw their own conclusions about the values and choices each character makes. From Casey's traditional parents (even though we find out what lurks beneath their quiet mannerisms) to her gambler boyfriend and horny but likable boss, Lee paints a world where right and wrong blend and blur, stripping down these characters' lives until it's clear just how complex their inner turmoil and joy really are. While certain plotlines had me racing to get to their next installment (specifically, herpes-afflicted good girl Ella Shim as she emerges from her shell, becomes a mom, gets divorced, falls in love, and learns to stand up for herself), every strand here is woven so succinctly, everyone's actions dissected from varying viewpoints, that together they made the 500+ pages go by so quickly and made me want to know what happens next.
Lee's descriptions are rich and vivid, from fancy gold courses to the interiors of a dry cleaner and Korean church, and by "interiors," I mean both the places, and the minds of the people who inhabit them. This is the kind of novel that sucks you in and doesn't let you out until you turn the last page, and even then, you'll want to know what decisions Casey and her friends and family will make (I for one would love to read a sequel, though the book is complete on its own). Lee isn't here to give us a moral lesson, but to point to the flaws we all have and share a gripping story with very human drama that needs no fanciful embellishment to be very, very real.
on September 1, 2007
As a Korean American male in my early 30's and also in the Investment Banking industry I picked up this book with much curiosity and anticipation. I have to say at the end of it, my thoughts were mixed. In my life, I've lived in the environment that both the author and the main character have gone through- Korean American church life, demanding academics, traditional parents and the rush to find a reputable profession after college. In my time I've known my share of archetypes in the mold of Casey Han, Ted Kim, Joseph Han, Unu Shim and yes even the ultra innocent, tragically beautiful, but ultimately naiveté and played like a fiddle Ella Shim. These caricatures not only exist in our community, but are also recognizable and realistic.
The first half of the book I thought Lee was building up to something quite interesting, perhaps accomplishing something groundbreaking like Chang Rae Lee did in his book "Native Speaker." However, the second half of the book devolved into something that didn't say anything really and was just fodder for gossip talk. Although, there were plenty of flawed characters in this book, it seems as if the Korean Americans, both men and women, were the most dysfunctional people. The only two Korean Americans that had the best values and most consistent personalities, Ellas's father and Casey's sister, were the most underdeveloped characters. The more drama you had in your life, the more words Ms. Lee devoted to developing your character. Maybe that was Lee's point? To take the standard immigrant literary fare of the hard working and noble immigrant family and turn it on its head and write about immigrants who are just as messed up as everyone else around them. For good measure, make them a little more messed up then their non-Korean peers. This is not an accurate representation of what most Korean Americans are. There are certainly characters in real life that are like the characters in the book, but the frequency is certainly skewed.
Also, the date rape that happened in the last third of the book bothered me greatly and I didn't think it was at all necessary. If Ms. Lee wanted to demonstrate tragic flaws in some characters I honestly do believe she could of used another vehicle to achieve her purpose. If I wasn't Korean American, I'd probably give this book another star. It is very well written and engaging if you are not emotionally tied to the culture that the characters navigate through. However, it is far from a classic and it is more along the lines of a light summer read. What saddens me is that, with a little more intelligence, foresight and responsible writing, it could have been so much more.
Those that have their DVR presets to the Oxygen and AZN channels will appreciate this book the most.
on February 17, 2008
I picked up this book from my local library based on all the great press it had received. After finishing the book, my reaction is that the praise is only somewhat deserved.
I had been looking forward to reading this book -- not only because of the acclaim, but because the author and her characters come from a background like my own -- high-achieving immigrants who had gone on to successful professional lives in New York.
Yet, just fifty pages in, I wanted to put it down. I had to force myself to read. The dialogue, especially the passages between the protagonist and her sister, and the protagonist and her friends, is so precious it's brutally painful -- a sort of artificial, too-smart-for-it's-own-good witty banter. I found myself grimacing while reading.
But that wasn't the only problem. The author also indulges in these tedious passages of exposition -- indeed, as one critic wrote, too much tell, too little show. The book is 600 pages -- it could surely have been edited down to half.
As a testament to how unnecessary the exposition is though, and as a boon for me as a reader, I was able to skim pretty quickly and get into the plot and characters. I started to enjoy the experience, and read on. To be fair, this may be because the world and the characters in the book are so familiar to me, and because the author weaves a heck of a soap opera of a story -- lots of sex and intrigue.
Following the trend of excess though, the author even takes the soap opera too far, with infidelity not only plaguing the protagonist, but nearly every other character in the book -- not just her immediate friends. If it's not a theme, it's almost a parody.
The book also deals a lot with internal struggles and external appearances -- maybe the "society novel" angle is what appealed so much to critics. I couldn't help but at times think the "witty" banter, the peek into rarefied worlds was a bit of fantasy fulfillment for the author. Fans of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, this book may be for you.
There are also strong themes of materialism and desperation for power running through the plot, with very little laugh-out-loud humor. It's interesting that the author was able to capture my attention with characters that are in general, pretty unlikeable. I enjoyed reading about these characters, and the author constructs a decent ending, but I didn't leave the story wondering about the protagonist or hoping to one day learn more about her future.
A final bit of acknowledgement for the novel -- in last 20 years, there have been some widely very successful books about Asians, usually written from a female perspective and purporting to give an "insider's view" of the culture. Think Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" and Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha." Many of them just stank of exoticism. This one is also has that cultural sampler feel, but for all its faults, is more familiar to me, and trades less on that exoticism.
on May 24, 2007
Thank you, Min Jin Lee, for writing this book. I was thoroughly fascinated by how flawlessly the author plucks you into the minds of each colorful, complex and beautifully-written character, making it impossible to put the book down. Casey Han is someone we all know, and can all relate to in one way or another-- prideful, fickle, neurotic, capable, and above all, enduring. At times you want to give her a big hug; others, you hate her for not realizing her talents & potential. The symbolism of hats to "crowns" adds a rich, lasting layer to this delicious treat.
As a Korean American 20-something, I've never before felt so connected to characters in a novel-- I greedily devoured the book and didn't want the story to end. It made me smile each time something felt familiar-- whether it's trying to communicate with my own immigrant, very-Christian parents, or the experiences I've had with the elusive dating pool in NYC, Lee puts on paper (in a very precise, intelligent way, nonetheless) the things we know and feel but rarely able to acknowledge.
on May 29, 2007
Min Jin Lee's Free Food for Millionaires is a remarkable book. It is both incredibly compelling as storytelling-- I couldn't put it down--and it has layers upon layers of metaphor, cultural commentary and literary references (from Dante to the Bible) for those who want to look deeper. Any English professor (or book club leader) looking for literature that will inspire endless analysis--while entertaining readers with plenty of sex, humor and intrigue--need look no further. I was left hoping for a sequel. The characters are so colorfully and richly drawn that they come alive. The reader becomes completely invested in them and can't help but want to know about their futures. I know the Ivy League/Wall Street world she describes, and she captures it to perfection. While I generally prefer books to film or TV adaptations, this is tailor-made for an HBO series, and it would be brilliant.
I must admit I am flummoxed by the comment of the reviewer who pegs the book for materialistic 20-somethings. As a professional in my 40s, it was clear to me that Ms. Lee's use of fashion, possessions and status was literary metaphor. Free Food for Millionaires is the farthest thing from "Chick Lit" there could ever be. For those looking simply for a wonderful yarn, it is all that and more. For the reader of literature seeking a book worthy of multiple reads and contemplation, Free Food for Millionaires will stand up to that scrutiny with ease.
on August 23, 2007
My goodness. I have never been so impressed with the beginning of a book only to be let down like this. Up until around page 400, I was still filled with hope that this was going to be a groundbreaking book. It wasn't until around 400 pages that I realized where this shipwreck was headed. To summarize, let me first start with the good points.
First, it was well written in terms of the suspense. I admit that I couldn't stop turning the pages, even after I realized the underlying message. It was a 560 page book, and I finished it in five days. At times, it had me spellbound, and I couldn't wait to find out what happened to the characters. Second, I like Lee's style. It was a bit confusing the way that she dove into every character's head, but it worked. It captured the entire society. For that she should be praised. Third, I thought Lee did a pretty good job of describing the lives and feelings of her female characters. Fourth, Lee puts a fair amount of time into describing her Asian male characters. Most Asian female authors glance over their Asian male characters as if they were an afterthought. Lee actually gives them something to do.
Now the bad things about this book.
First, Lee's male characters are weak. They seem like women inside men's bodies, or they seem like superficial caricatures thrown in to support the women's stories. Whether the male characters were white or Asian, old or young, I just couldn't get into them because they weren't believable. Hugh Underhill, for example, is a stereotype of a Wall Street salesman. He thinks about trades, sex, and nothing else. Casey's father is a stereotypical Asian male brute who beats his children. Unu is a stereotypical Asian male loser who doesn't have self-control.
Second, what's with all the sex? Everybody likes sex, but this was just ridiculous. Your average porn doesn't have as much sex as this novel. It might be titillating, but it doesn't always make good literature, and in the case of this novel, I had problems in places where I felt the sex was not believable. For example, I highly doubt that all those old Koreans spend their time thinking about sex. I highly doubt Leah would have been so emotionally helpless because of her sexual urges.
Third, and this is the most problematic aspect of this novel, is the racial stereotyping of the men. This, in my opinion, is what eventually broke this novel. Sure, Lee gives more airtime to Asian men than perhaps any other Asian American female author to date. However, the same old tired stereotypes of Asian men and white men poison this book. A quick read should make this obvious. The shameless philanderer Ted who leaves his wife and infant child, the calculating rapist Charles Hong, the old Asian man Joseph who feels threatened and then takes it out physically on his grown daughter, the loser Unu who can't control his gambling habit, are all Asian. On the other hand, the perfect man with the blue eyes David Greene, the gorgeous and irresistable ladies man Hugh Underhill, the father figures Isaac Gottesman and Joseph McReed, are all white men. Even Casey's ex-boyfriend Jay Currie is depicted as a flawed but ultimately superior individual who is passionate and focused. With a quote on the back cover by David Henry Hwang, I probably should've predicted that Asian men were going to get dragged over the coals, but the amount of racial venom that this story dishes out really surprised me. I guess the racist anti-Asian male culture perpetuated by Hwang, Amy Tan, and Maxine Hong Kingston is alive and well.
If there were one moral lesson of this story that I took away with me, it was this: Asian women need to be more assertive and need to support each other, White women are either airheads or sluts, Asian men are evil or weak, and White men are the epitome of all that is good and wonderful in the world. The message is quite clear. It's not just one or two characters who embody these racial stereotypes, it's ALL of them.
I sometimes wonder why so many Asian American authors perpetuate such hatred against Asian American men. Sure, you'll find Asian American men who are rapists, child beaters, and philanderers, but I'd be surprised if those among our population are any more common than in other populations. Similarly, I'm always so shocked when I read how Asian American authors love to exalt White men as if they were gods. Both the hatred against Asian men and the deification of White men have to stop.
Anyway, two stars for the good writing. The overall message, however, is not something that I want to be a part of. It's sad that authors continue to perpetuate this kind of backward racist thinking in this day and age.
I was drawn by the book's title: What could such a book be about? I was surprised by the message in mostly good ways.
Ms. Lee has succeeded in creating a new way of looking at the immigrant experience, and her novel will cause you to rethink many assumptions you have made about others. You'll also have a more jaundiced view of where American society is headed: a warning call about the dangers of heedless ambition, greed, and sexual immorality that many will agree is needed.
The traditional American immigrant novel usually followed this plot: Poor people barely make it to America, work hard, sacrifice, send their children to school; the children succeed; and the family prospers while adhering to good values. The contrast between the wider world the children experience and what the parents perceive usually makes for some interesting reading.
Readers enter the Han family at a defining moment of the immigrant success path: The older daughter, Casey, has just graduated from Princeton where she did well. Where we expect success and happiness from the story to follow, failure lurks. Casey doesn't plan to go on to graduate school, even though she was admitted to Columbia Law School. She only applied for one permanent job and didn't get it. But she can always continue to sell hats for peanuts in the upscale department store where she's worked part-time for years.
What's the problem? "As a capable young woman, Casey Han felt compelled to choose respectability and success. But it was glamour and insight that she craved." While earning this success, Casey found the frivolous life that her fellow students lived called out eloquently to her. But those are rich people, and she is not. Her Korean parents work at a Manhattan dry cleaner from which they never take a day off. What's the right path for someone like Casey?
Naturally, her father wants to get Casey on a stable path. Casey doesn't want to submit, and she's told to leave after a violent confrontation. No problem. She'll just take her cigarettes and live with her wealthy boy friend. Uh, oh! He's been picked up by two college girls looking for a fling, and Casey walks in on the threesome.
Now, what will she do?
The story plays out over the next four years as Casey tries out life on her own terms. Grudgingly, she realizes that as a woman without means she will have to be supported financially by someone. She is disappointed to find that few people want to help without any strings attached. While she has always sought acceptance in the nonKorean world, she's happily surprised to find that Koreans (even ones she doesn't like) can be her best supporters.
How will she earn a living? What she's good at doing can earn her a high income . . . but she doesn't like it. What she likes to do doesn't pay well at all. What to choose?
In the meantime, she pretends to be wealthy and spends lavishly on clothes she can't afford. Her debts mount up . . . as does her sense of futility.
The novel's main point is that no one can be trusted when it comes to sexual and material temptations, including yourself.
Where should you go from that pessimistic view of our sinful nature? Ms. Lee's plot suggests that faith in your religion isn't enough to protect you. Those without religion, however, have worse lapses than the religious.
The book's end will leave you with a sense that you need to listen more carefully to the individual's cry: Do your own thing. But you knew that already.
What will intrigue you about this book is to realize how much pain you can cause yourself by resisting what comes naturally. One of my favorite scenes in the book has a very hungry Casey interviewing for a support job at an investment bank. She wants to pretend she has no needs and eats almost nothing at a buffet of free food while many millionaire brokers gorge themselves. Casey can't compromise with her self-image, even if the self-image isn't based in reality.
Unlike many novels that either don't develop the characters or only develop them once, Ms. Lee develops many of her characters along multiple dimensions through the temptations and adversity they face. That makes for a more compelling read. But it also presents a problem for readers: You need to want to go through all of that development. For me, I would have been satisfied with 200 pages less. Although the book never totally bogged down, it doesn't have the zing of a book that focuses just on the key turning points of the story.
I'm also not sure the story started in the right place. Casey didn't ever make sense to me. Perhaps if there had been 25 pages in the beginning about her life at Princeton I would have understood her conflicted character better. For example, she's a spendthrift, but she doesn't start to act that way until after she graduates. A real spendthrift would have had a credit card earlier and run up the retail debt sooner. Someone who was totally committed to high living would have been interviewing at every high paying employer who came to Princeton. Someone who wanted a year off to make up her mind would have applied for a traveling fellowship that paid all of her expenses. Perhaps Ms. Lee intended to portray Casey as depressed, but surely Casey would have made it to the school infirmary and gotten medicine for that?
Those who like serious literature will be thrilled by the layering of themes and references that a less skilled writer would have left out. But you'll have to deal with the extended length to gain that pleasure. Casey wouldn't have bothered. She would have reread a favorite book instead.
on July 2, 2007
Min Jin Lee's Free Food for Millionaires is a novel you want to immediately read again after the first read. It is written with salty wit and texture, with moments that are breath taking and unexpected. The characters are rich and familiar - I especially was taken by Leah. A coming of age book that that is at once classic and modern, and addresses a wide age group. Recommended.
on February 25, 2009
I found this novel really engrossing for the first few hundred pages, but eventually I just got tired of reading about a bunch of characters who seemed oblivious to the fact that they were their own worst enemies. One of the main plot devices is infidelity, with almost every character in the story having an affair. This book worked for a while, but not for 600 pages.