Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Free Food for Millionaires

Even though I've read quite a few new nonfiction books recently, it has been over a year since I last read a great novel. I am happy that my time was well spent on Free Food for Millionaires, the 560-page debut by Min Jin Lee.

I first heard about this book when Min Jin Lee was being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air. I was impressed by the poise and ease with which she answered difficult questions posed to her, particularly those by an angry Korean American young man insisting that there is no racism toward Asian Americans in the United States.

I was also amused by the title. Strangely enough, the first thing that came to my mind was the episode of the Sopranos in which Ben Kingsley made a cameo appearance. The episode shows how movie stars are offered many free things by the luxury hotel they stay in. It is true: in America, you get many more freebies when you are wealthy.

In a nutshell, Free Food for Millionaires is about a young Korean American woman who just graduated from Princeton in the early 90's and is searching for a way to support her lifestyle that revolves around designer fashion and accessories in New York City. This story is more similar to Candace Bushnell's Trading Up and William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair than to any Amy Tan books--thank God. The Asian American writers (all Chinese American women until Min Jin Lee) I've read tend to focus so much on emotions around identity that they feel hollow after a while. Min Jin Lee's novel is full of rich layers that address everyday issues that Korean immigrants and their children encounter -- money, status, Christianity, and family. Identity certainly plays an important role in the book, but it is done with little self-consciousness. Casey Han is searching for an identity, but she is searching for it through money, status, religion, and family, not her race. Yet, I could always sense that she is proud of her Korean heritage throughout the story. Min Jin Lee's talent in crafting this truly American novel with such integrity is remarkable.

One of my husband's biggest complaints about Chinese American women writers is that they often unfairly portray Chinese or Chinese American men as terrible people. Min Jin Lee does not do that here, but she is Korean and not Chinese. Every character in the novel has very human flaws, and she has been fair in her depictions of women and men, Korean or otherwise. Casey is not opposed to interracial marriage, but neither is she partial to courting only non-Korean men.

Another aspect of this story that really struck me is Casey's struggle with her faith. In the beginning of the story, Casey claims that she is agnostic, but everyday, she opens up the bible to copy down a passage that she either dislikes or does not understand. As she drifts through her life in a materialistic world, she finds ground in spirituality.

The most judgmental are the most afraid of being judged themselves. Forgiveness and grace are among my favorite themes in the story.


jimmy said...

First, congrats on the Globe piece. Second, this is rather random, but I've been meaning to read this novel ever since I heard about it on NPR. Strange, but my mom told me she has a copy for me because the author's mom goes to church with my mom. Anyway, thought I'd share that little nugget.

Pigmentia said...

Thanks for reading my blog, Jimmy! How cool that your mom goes to church with Min Jin Lee's mom! I think she's a terrific writer.