I finally found some extra time to finish reading Min Jin Lee’s novel Free Food for Millionaires recently. there has been quite a buzz surrounding Lee and her debut novel in the last year including a segment on NPR and high praise from the likes of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. it’s tough for any book to survive that sort of hype and Free Food for Millionaires is no exception. but it’s a strong debut nonetheless for Lee and even though the book is far from perfect it’s still a fun and interesting read. the story revolves around Casey, a young korean-american living in New York who recently graduated from Princeton. early on in the story, she has a falling out with her parents over her post-graduation decisions and so we follow her on her journey in finding her own place in life as well as learn about the family and friends that help her get there. Lee brings in a great mix of supporting characters including Ella (who finds her own true voice during the course of the story after a divorce), Unu (Ella’s cousin and eventual love interest of Casey’s) and Sabine (successful business woman and “surrogate mother” to Casey). as a korean-american, I took great interest in reading all the neat little insights about korean-american life sprinkled generously throughout the book. Lee’s take on family life, the korean church and interracial dating were pretty spot on. One memorable scene in the book took place at a rehearsal dinner involving Casey’s family and the Baek family. I thought Lee brilliantly captured the tension between the two families and how the gift exchange brought out the Baek’s true colors.
here’s an excerpt from that scene:

Casey had heard about the large house they owned in Bethesda, the beach house in Rehoboth, the membership at the country club in Chevy Chase, and she could’ve easily guessed the price of each St. John’s outfit of the Baek sisters. The mother was wearing Armani. Chul’s parents made seven or eight times more than her parents. These weren’t people who shopped at Macy’s normally, and none of them would have worn less than cashmere around their throats. They’d gone out of their way to let her family know its place. It was mean to Tina, but Casey saw that it was also mean to Chul.

one aspect of the book that received a lot of attention initially by reviewers was Lee’s choice of using the omniscient point of view in telling the story. I found it worked quite well in some parts of the book since the reader got that extra layer of detail and information that couldn’t have been conveyed in any other way. But at other points in the book, the momentum seemed to get lost due to Lee’s need to fill us in on everyone’s backstory. in addition to the loss of momentum, I’d have to say that the second half of the book is relatively weak compared to the strong first half. the story lost focus a bit and meandered as if the author didn’t quite know how to end Casey’s story. also, it felt a bit too melodramatic at times, where a couple plot twists could have worked just as well in a korean soap opera.

when the book does finally come to a close, Lee chose to end with a small and quiet scene with Casey and Unu which I liked very much. unfortunately Lee also chose to leave a few unresolved loose ends. I’m sure she did this to keep things “real” and not force the various threads to end so tidy and neat. if that was the intention, I can certainly understand it but for some of the characters that turned up in the second half of the book (i.e. Joseph McReed, the book store owner and Charles Hong, the choir director) the ending simply felt too abrupt, in my opinion.

So, yes, the book, Free Food for Millionaires has its share of flaws just like the lead character, Casey. and like Casey, the book is still very interesting and worth the time and effort to get to know.