At first glance, Min Jin Lee's debut epic could be mistaken for an Amy Tan-inspired "Asian American tries to balance two worlds" family drama. But upon closer inspection, Lee is gently but firmly pushing the genre in a more modern direction, and in the process manages to create her own niche in the literary world.
Lee tells her story using a device currently out of vogue: the omniscient point of view, in which the reader is privy to every character's thoughts, sans section breaks or other indication that the point of view has changed. Readers will find that they not only quickly become accustomed to this narrative style, but eagerly turn each page to see who they'll get to eavesdrop on next: a worried parent, a romantic doorman, a cheating boyfriend, a driven boss or a pining lover. All are complex and worthy of the attention, no matter how brief or extended, that Lee lavishes upon them.
At the heart of this story is Casey Han, Korean-American daughter of dry-cleaners Joseph and Leah, older sister to Tina, and seeker of her own American dream. Casey doesn't try to live in two worlds; she simply tries to stay afloat in one world: the expensive, class-driven society of New York City. After graduating magna cum laude from Princeton with a degree in economics, Casey finds that there are no scholarships in real life, and the debt she incurs after graduation trying to keep up with her wealthy friends and co-workers, or simply trying to fulfill her own sartorial lusts, dogs her throughout the novel.
Lee's background—she's a Korean-American who went to Yale and lives in New York City—gives her story an unmistakable authenticity. She writes the inside language and nuances of ambitious Columbia business school grads as fluently as she writes of the longings of an undereducated, middle-aged Korean mother and choral singer afraid of her own talent.
At 512 pages, Free Food for Millionaires is not a novel to be entered into lightly, but the rewards are well worth the time. It's not a day trip; it's an immersion into a fully realized and beautifully written world.
Kristy Kiernan is the author of Catching Genius.