Review: Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

I am lucky, lucky, lucky.  I have some really good friends.  Smart, interesting friends who like to read and review books for me!  Which is great because I get more books than I can possibly read each month, so it’s nice to be able to share them with my book club buddies, and share their reviews here!

My friend Valerie snapped up a couple ARCs and freebies that I brought with me to our book club meeting last month.  I knew Val was smart, but I had no idea of her amazing reviewing powers!  Good grief, she could be a professional!  Here is her review of Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee. Thanks, Valerie!

 The United States is one of the great melting pots of the world. American libraries and bookstores are filled with books, both fictional and non-fictional, describing the immigrant experience. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee explores this genre from a Korean perspective. The author, herself, immigrated to the U.S. from Korea with her family at age 7. It can safely be assumed that the main character, Casey, is a reflection of the author’s own personal experiences, trials and tribulations.

When the novel first opens we meet Casey Han, at the age of  22, living with her parents in a small apartment in Queens, New York. The same home they moved into 17 years earlier when they first immigrated from Korea. She has just graduated from Princeton with a degree in business, but with no job prospects to speak of . By chapter four, we find Casey walking the streets, broke and homeless. In short order, she is physically abused by her father and betrayed by her long term boyfriend. The rest of the story deals with Casey’s attempt to climb out of this pit and redeem herself.       

Free Food for Millionaires is a story of ambivalence. Casey values honesty and yet keeps her cigarette smoking and white boyfriend a secret from her family. She looks down on women who try and appear sexy but has been promiscuous since age 15. She reads her bible daily but considers herself an agnostic. She doesn’t want to buy into the  Wall Street materialism, but yet, doesn’t feel a sense of  belonging to the artistic camp where being poor is a badge of honor. 

It is also the story of the search for self. As Casey’s journey expands, we are introduced to the many other players in this coming of age novel. We have Casey’s parents, Joseph and Leah, who have worked managing a dry cleaning business for 17 years. Never taking a vacation; their only pleasure coming from their involvement in the local Korean christian church. Casey’s younger sister, Tina, is the proverbial perfect child.  Persuing medical school and trying to not make the same mistakes her sister does. Both her and Casey’s understanding of America is based on watching 1980’s TV shows.  Then we have Casey’s classmates, associates in the world of Wall Street finance and those in the retail clothing business. 

Early on the cast of players expands rapidly and contiues to add new characters almost to the end. The author writes in omniscient voice. Utilizing this narration, most of the characters are fairly well developed. For some readers thsi may cause a sense of feeling overwhelmed. There are so many points of view and so many varied plots. However, at over 500 pages, the author is able to successfully carry the reader thru each of these intermingling story lines to a sense of closure and character growth. By revealing each person’s inner thoughts, even the less likeable can have some redeeming qualities. 

Most of the characters in the novel are of Korean descent. The author, Min Jin Lee, acknowledges that was one of her motivating factors in writing Free Food for Millionaires. It is her belief that there is a lack of accurate representations of Asian Americans in both the arts and media, leading to a distorted image of them as a group. She describes her writing as an attempt at a community novel to reveal the complicated life of the Korean American. 

The story definitely succeeds in opening the door to this view. But, at the same time, it is also a universal tale of growing up, making choices, making mistakes and learning by them. In this regard it is a story that reflects a little bit of each of us without regard to ethnicity. A portrayal of the belief that , if in the end we can achieve a sense of self, it will have been worth it all. As Tina says to her sister Casey, “You’re a true person. You are your own. No one is like you. In the end, that matters most, I think. And being truthful.” 

Blogger Bio:  Valerie Mehl is a Nurse Practitioner working in emergency medicine and also a mother of a very energetic nine year old daughter. She graduated with a BS in Nursing from California State University, Long Beach and then later returned to her alma mater to complete a Masters degree in Nursing. She used to say she worked to travel and that still remains her passion but now finds herself, more often, playing Taxi Mom for her daughter. Her love for reading developed at a young age and a good book trumps the TV for her any night.