Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Reviewed by Gill Davies

I am going to review two novels by Min Jin Lee (the other one is Patchinko, reviewed here). This one was her first; it was successful and quite well reviewed and is now reprinted in paperback to coincide with the publication of her second novel. I can’t wholeheartedly say I enjoyed it but I think many readers will. And it is interesting to compare it to her second, Patchinko, which is very different. Taken together, they are an interesting study in contemporary American fiction and show how different first and second novels can be. Min Jin Lee spent several years learning to write fiction and trying to find a subject and focus that would capture an agent and an audience. Her hard work paid off.

Free Food for Millionaires came out in 2007. It has been promoted as a page turner, a great holiday read. And it is full of incident, detailing the lives of a large cast of characters, their work, marriages, love affairs, sex, and lots of shopping. The setting is New York city in the 1990s. The narrative focuses on Casey Han, a young woman of Korean heritage whose parents are first generation immigrants. They manage a dry cleaning shop and live modestly. Relatively poor, they are also constrained by rather narrow traditional values, informed by their culture and religion but also by their sense of the fragility of their social position. They have two daughters who, by becoming socially mobile through education, represent for them the possibilities of life and success in the USA. In the opening scene, the older daughter, Casey, argues with her father and the gulf between their two worlds opens up; he hits her and she leaves home. Casey is between two worlds. She has just graduated from Princeton having been funded by a scholarship and with additional support from the wealthy owner of the up-market store where she works weekends and holidays. Away from the Korean community, she has acquired friends and acquaintances who are all white, Ivy League, middle class and wealthy.

This is, then, an interesting scenario. We empathise with a character caught between her traditional family and the new world she discovers through education and social aspiration. Her perspective gives her, and us, a slightly critical point of view on the procession of largely young people making their way in the city. The novel has been compared to Victorian blockbusters and it has some similarities. The details of everyday life and work inside big Wall Street finance and banking companies seem horribly accurate. The apartments that the characters inhabit and and the upscale stores they frequent are carefully described. But I felt that the novel had an ambivalent take on the world it represented. It lingers over, even relishes, the description and it is hard to say how critical Min Jin Lee is. There is sympathy for the main character who finds herself both inside and outside it. But fundamentally Casey has become part of that world; she wants it and won’t return to her roots. She does, in fact, find other upwardly-mobile, highly-educated Koreans whose lives she can share. And they seem indistinguishable (to me) from their WASP counterparts. One acquaintance from the Korean church she was raised in is a wealthy doctor’s daughter, whose fiancé is a self-made Korean banker. We learn very little about Korean culture as these people are all assimilated into the urban upper class. Their courtship, marriage, and divorce are recognisable from any number of American soaps.

As the novel develops, it is the world of social ambition, consumerism and status that comes to dominate, rather than the themes of cultural dislocation and social inequality that were promised at the start. It is a big novel about aspiring, privileged, and – to me – rather shallow characters. Their world is relentlessly defined through brands, labels, jobs, shops – all the markers of North American wealth and privilege. Most of the characters come across as familiar American types, usually labelled according to which “school” they went to and which graduate programme they’re on (law or finance). I must admit I found this quite irritating: the shallowness of acquisitive, superficial people. Nevertheless the novel has its strong points. It takes its heroine through pain, loss, and debt. She stands up for herself, and for friends and family when they need her. There is an energy in the struggle she has to establish herself in a world that can be alien and unkind. But I would have liked to read more about the conflict between the first and second generations, questions of gender and cultural difference. I was pleased that Min Jin Lee’s second novel explores some of these areas more deeply.

Min Jin Lee, Free Food for Millionaires (Apollo: London, 2017). 978-1786694485, 560pp., paperback.

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