Casey Han’s four years at Princeton gave her many things, “But no job and a number of bad habits.” Casey’s parents, who live in Queens, are Korean immigrants working in a dry cleaner, desperately trying to hold on to their culture and their identity. Their daughter, on the other hand, has entered into rarified American society via scholarships. But after graduation, Casey sees the reality of having expensive habits without the means to sustain them. As she navigates Manhattan, we see her life and the lives around her, culminating in a portrait of New York City and its world of haves and have-nots. FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES offers up a fresh exploration of the complex layers we inhabit both in society and within ourselves. Inspired by 19th century novels such as Vanity Fair and Middlemarch, Min Jin Lee examines maintaining one’s identity within changing communities in what is her remarkably assured debut.
Description taken from Goodreads.
First, a disclaimer:
I’ll attempt to give you the short version: sometime in the past three years, I came to the conclusion that I was slowly but steadily moving toward adult literature. When I thought about how to approach reviewing modern adult lit when I have next to no experience with it, I referenced the very first reviews I wrote on this blog when I began foraying into this world. I decided that I needed to develop a baseline. Like with YA, I needed to read a broad range of the best books in the genre and find out what was normal, what was strange, and what was terrible in order to claim the phenomenal. That’s why this review will not necessarily be based around criticism, but rather observations, questions, and praise. Read more
This review is intended to be mostly devoid of criticism, but I will say that I enjoyed Pachinko more than Free Food for Millionaires, even though the latter was much more thought-provoking.
More than anything else I’ve read thus far, Free Food for Millionares reminded me of Paula Stokes’ Vicarious in that it showed me a different side of Korean culture, and people in general, that was new to me and not necessarily likable. A big part of the reason why I ventured into adult lit was because I wanted to gain a broader awareness of my culture and those of others, and I think that I’ve achieved that with Lee’s stories.
If Pachinko was about the ways that those close to us hold us together and destroy us in the hurricane that is life, then Free Food for Millionaires was about the ways that we hold ourselves together and destroy ourselves in the hurricane that is life. The indomitable human spirit, if you will. What impressed me most was Lee’s ability to send her characters down completely realistic, completely flawed paths. They do what they do because they can’t help it. Sometimes they know better, sometimes they want better, sometimes they appear as though they’ve changed, but every second of it is a struggle.
Though Free Food for Millionaires follows the lives of a handful of characters, it centers around Casey and one of her friends, Ella. In Casey’s situation, she’s not the most lovable character. No, scratch that–she’s dislikable all around, yet I couldn’t bring myself to hate her. She makes horrible mistakes, has crushing pride, and is much of a snob (or at least pretends to be), yet somehow, she endeared herself to me through her struggles, ideals, hopes, and failures. This was very reminiscent of the classics that I used to read, and I questioned whether this was normal of adult literature or if it’s a skill that Lee developed. Regardless, I wasn’t used to seeing it and was impressed by it.
In her discussion in the back of the book, Lee talks about how, in writing Free Food, she wanted to mimic the multi-POV style of European 19th century and American 20th century literature that she loved (which does tie into my first question of the normalcy of her style). In future readings of this book, I hope to answer if she was truly successful or not. In this case, I felt that it was not. The writing resembles more of what I saw (and didn’t love) in the ending of Pachinko, where the cohesive whole made up of numerous parts became just numerous parts that seemed to connect. Especially toward the middle and the end of Free Food for Millionaires, I felt like I was returning to the same characters, but that I was losing parts of their lives that mattered. Was the narrative really as on-and-off as it felt, or were the snapshots an effective artistic move?
I also learned, through Free Food for Millionaires, how it is that people can come to be defined by just one thing. That seems so impossible on the outside, but after reading this story, I could make a case for how every aspect of a person can be defined by a single action, event, or fact. Every move a person makes could be the attempt to prove his or herself from a childhood lack of self-worth; every word could be about being the lone survivor of a war platoon. This led to the question of if Lee’s point was how being born a Korean can be one of those defining traits, as many of the characters are bound by the same flaws and traps. Unlike the others, this question isn’t a broad literary one so much as a thematic, book-specific one.
Now that I think about it, I actually have many of these book-specific questions. I loved the romance, friendships, break-offs, and everything in-between that happens throughout the story and the ways that Lee reveals the fragility and strength of relationships, but what about all of the sexual elements to the story? Much more so than Pachinko, sex was a pretty big topic in Free Food for Millionaires. What is it supposed to mean, and is it common across adult lit? Does its meaning change across stories? And the hats… why? Why are they emphasized and so strongly associated with Casey? There are additional moral questions that are raised about the ideas of good and bad. People generally have their own set of morals and can make up their own minds about many of the events of the story–I certainly did–but which characters would generally be considered right and wrong? What crosses the line? No situation is easy here. I’ve heard that there’s a psychology class at Columbia U that utilizes Free Food that I would love to be a part of if I end up there. In an entirely different way than I was expecting when I set up this review format, these are questions I feel that I’ll be able to answer much better after having read more in the genre.
I’ll wrap it up with the ending. The ending was the most conflicted part of Free Food for me. By the end of this thick book, I felt tired and ready to be done (I read almost the entire book in one sitting), but when I reached the final word, it was like getting cold water poured over my head and waking up. I needed more. I wanted to see Casey succeed, to see if she could ever succeed. I wanted to find out if Hugh Underhill could ever find love the impossible way that Ted did. If Casey and Jay could be friends. If Ella made it through okay, if her daughter grew up being less lonely than her mother did. And it was more than just knowing the future. I felt that there was still unfinished business. What was the point of an ending with halfway closure? Was it even halfway closure, or was I just missing crucial elements of the story? Is the ending intended to be its own theme?
Free Food for Millionaires was one of my first adult lit reads, and it’s taken good care of me. I didn’t absolutely love every second of it, but it was thoughtful and intriguing. I empathized with the characters and ultimately enjoyed the entirety of their journey. Overall, great read. 4 stars.